It is a common misconception that seniors should steer clear of physical activity as they get older for fear of injury and various other reasons. But contrary to popular belief, older adults are highly encouraged to stay active even in their golden years. Physical inactivity is actually known to increase the risk of chronic disease and older people are the most common group of people to have such conditions. Plus, staying active through light, low-impact exercises can be helpful for many seniors. Rehabilitative exercises are important in the surgery recovery process, and seniors with dementia can also benefit greatly from light activity as it can delay the progression of their condition.
According to the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) exercise recommendations for seniors, older adults should include both strength, aerobic, and balance exercises to reduce the risk of falls and injuries, and to remain healthy as they age.
While it may seem like a slightly intimidating feat at an older age, there are multiple ways for seniors to exercise safely. Regardless of how old you are, it is never too late to get started.
Benefits of exercising for seniors
1. Prevents and Counteracts Disease
Apart from age and genetics, physical inactivity is one of the main causes of chronic diseases among elderly persons. This includes conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, which can be deadly if not treated properly and immediately. Multiple studies have proven that adopting a more active lifestyle can prevent and even counter the unpleasant symptoms of these diseases.
2. Build Strong Bones
As we get older, it is normal for us to lose bone mass or density in our bodies. However, this makes us more susceptible to falls and bone fractures, which could gravely affect the way we function on a daily basis. With weight-bearing exercises, walking, jogging, or high-intensity aerobics, you can build up your bone strength and reduce the risk of developing osteoporosis and fractures in the body.
3. Boosts Brain Function
Unfortunately, your brain will eventually go through inevitable changes with time, causing your overall brain function to deteriorate. Your brain may have the tendency to shrink in certain areas, especially in regions that are used in learning and performing complex mental activities, causing detrimental effects on one’s cognitive functions. The good news is that regular exercise can change the brain and improve your memory and thinking skills. Research has shown how regular exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus, which is the area in your brain involved in learning and verbal memory.
4. Improves Overall Quality of Life
Besides presenting a host of physical advantages, exercising also has psychological benefits as well. One of the key takeaways from regular physical activity is how it’s associated with improving mental health and delaying the onset of dementia, which can improve one’s quality of life and general well-being.
What exercises should seniors avoid?
Due to their intensities, there are various exercises that seniors should avoid to reduce the risk of injury. Here are a few common exercises that elderly adults should steer clear of.
1. Crunches or Sit-Ups
Core exercises that require you to lay on the ground like crunches or sit-ups can be tough on an individual’s neck muscles and spine, resulting in strains and tension headaches. When performed incorrectly, the core can go totally ignored, which defeats the purpose of the exercise entirely.
Planking is an effective alternative to crunches or sit-ups as it doesn’t strain your neck and shoulders, and actively targets your core and arms at the same time.
2. Stair Climbing
Climbing stairs is known to improve your endurance and stamina as well as raise your heart rate immediately. However, walking up and down a flight of stairs, or perhaps even on a stair master machine at the gym can be rough on the knees for many seniors. They are also potentially hazardous due to the risk of falls and cardiovascular strain.
To substitute this exercise, step-ups are a less intense activity with the same benefits as climbing stairs. Not only does this target all the major muscles in the lower body, but it also eliminates the risk of falls. All you have to do is stand in front of a flight of stairs or a step box and start performing a few sets of reps until you wish to gradually increase the intensity of the activity.
Deadlifting is an intense strength movement that can be performed by elderly persons who have years of lifting experience. However, if you’re only looking for a simple and mild strength training exercise, this might not be the best one for you. Deadlifts generally work out your entire body but heavily target the back, traps, shoulders and triceps, which can challenge your strength throughout the entire posterior chain.
Many seniors with back and posture problems may find it difficult to execute this lift and can damage their back, shoulders and arm muscles if performed incorrectly. Instead, kettlebell swings are much easier to learn and are not as physically hazardous as deadlifts.
Squats are an effective exercise that targets the abdominal area as well as a wide range of muscles in the lower body including the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, and calves. Since this requires balance and strength, squats may not be advisable for seniors with poor balance.
On the other hand, chair squats are a simple alternative that will put less pressure on one’s knees and allows seniors to rest as and when they need to. All you will need is a strong and sturdy chair to perform this exercise.
Tips for exercising safely
1. Always Warm Up First
Stretching and warming up before any form of exercise can reduce the risk of muscle soreness and injury. By doing so, you are increasing blood flow to your muscles, getting your cardiovascular system going, and waking up all the muscles in the body in preparation for the exercise. Once you are done, it is also helpful to cool down in order for your heart rate and blood pressure to slowly recover.
2. Consult with Your Doctor Prior to Exercising
Especially for seniors, it is advisable to consult with your doctor before engaging in any type of physical activity. Your doctor is most familiar with your health issues and physical limitations, and can advise you on what you can do and what to avoid. Furthermore, they can also assess your maximum heart rate to determine the safest intensity level for which you can exercise.
3. Start Off Slow
The last thing you want is to get an injury because you decided to go straight into a high-intensity activity. For elderly persons, it is important to start slowly with simple exercises first. Start with short intervals of light-intensity physical activity, and gradually increase the duration of the exercise and the number of days spent in a week exercising. This gives your body enough time to adjust to any changes.
4. Be Aware of Your Body’s Limits
Always listen to your body. It is completely normal to feel slight discomfort during your exercise regimen, but be aware of when it starts to hurt or make you feel sickly. If you begin to develop shortness of breath, chest pain, joint pain, or break out in a cold sweat, put your routine on hold and take a break to monitor your condition. If these aches and pains come up more frequently, try exercising for shorter durations and consult with your doctor.
Light exercises to increase strength at home
Check out the video below by HealthHub for 7 sit-down exercises that you can do with your loved ones at home, which can be done with a resistance band or even a rolled up towel.
On top of seated exercises, seniors can also work out with a variety of standing exercises:
1. Heel-Toe Raises
This exercise helps older adults strengthen their lower leg muscles, which are essential for balance when walking or performing other physical activities. In a standing or seated position, begin to rise up on your toes as high as you can and engage your calf muscles. Return to the starting position and repeat this step as often as you’d like.
If you lose balance easily and need additional support while standing, modify the exercise and place a chair in front of you as you continue your heel-toe raises to avoid losing your balance.
2. Chair Squats
As an alternative to regular squats, chair squats minimise the risk of falling as well as back and joint injuries among elderly persons. This can strengthen your entire lower calf and hamstrings, which will be useful when getting up from a chair or picking things up off the floor.
In front of a chair, stand with both feet at hip-width distance apart. Bend your legs and begin to push your hips back, as if you were going to sit on the chair. To come out of the chair squat, push through your feet, engage your butt muscles and return to a standing position. Ensure that your upper body is only leaning forward slightly to maintain proper form.
3. Seated Overhead Press
Compared to the previous exercises that require just your body weight and no equipment, small and lighter weights will be needed for a seated overhead press. Place your upper arms close to your side with your forearms perpendicular to the floor and elbows bent. Your weights should be at shoulder level and palms should face the front. From here, slowly press the weights upward until your arms are extended with the weight slightly forward. Pause for a few seconds before returning to the starting position.
To modify and elevate this activity, try doing this exercise while standing to work on your balance at the same time. Do 8 to 15 repetitions of this exercise before taking a break.
This exercise is a much safer alternative to regular pushups and will strengthen your entire upper body while focusing on your arms and chest. All you are going to need for this exercise is a wall.
Stand in front of a wall at arm’s length. Ensure that it is a flat surface with no paintings, decorations, doors, or windows. With your feet planted and palms flat on the wall, lean forward slightly and bring your body towards the wall at the width and height of your shoulders. Afterwards, gently straighten your arms to push yourself back. Depending on the intensity level, you may choose to do anywhere between 10 to 15 reps of this exercise.
5. Resistance Band Exercises
Exercises that require the use of resistance bands such as bicep curls and tricep presses are becoming increasingly popular among seniors as they are easy to pick up for beginners. Generally, resistance bands are used in strength training and can be used in multiple parts of the body, providing a variety of exercises for older adults. On top of that, they are extremely accessible and cost-effective.
For seniors, some of the best resistance band exercises include the leg press, chest pull, calf press, and lateral raise.
Medium-intensity exercises to improve balance
1. Tai Chi
Tai chi is a low-impact exercise aimed at providing meditation through slow and deliberate movements. Since tai chi has all the physical components required to stay upright such as leg strength, range of motion, and flexibility, it certainly helps improve your balance. It is also said that tai chi can aid in preventing falls among older adults at high risk of falling.
While it is targeted at improving balance, it can also help maintain strength, flexibility and balance, making it the ideal form of gentle exercise for seniors.
2. Rock the Boat
Rock the boat is a simple exercise that can specifically help those with standing balance problems. This requires no equipment, but it is advised to stand on a yoga mat or wear walking shoes for that extra cushion.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and ensure they are firmly planted on the ground. Begin to lift your left leg slowly off the ground and hold the pose for up to 30 seconds, then bring your foot back down. Repeat this step with the other leg and alternate the process five times on each side.
3. Heel-Toe Walk
Imagine being on a tightrope, where you have to walk in a straight line—that’s exactly how the heel-toe walk works. This is a relatively simple activity, which requires no equipment whatsoever.
Start by focusing on one spot in the distance to help keep your head straight and maintain your balance. Then, begin placing the heel of one foot in front of the toes of your opposite foot each time you take a step.
4. Back Leg Raises
Leg raises are a great two-in-one exercise. Not only does it strengthen your lower body, but helps with balance as well. For this exercise, it is best to place a chair in front of you for support. Stand tall with your feet directly under your hips for stability. Next, lift your right leg straight backwards and try not to bend the knees. Stay in the position for a few seconds before lowering your right foot down on the floor. Repeat the same step for the other leg.
While the recommended frequency for this exercise is fifteen times for each leg, feel free to do what feels right for your body.
This is one of the best balance exercises for seniors as it activates a wide range of muscles in your body, which helps you develop balance, stability and coordination. Strengthening your standing muscles is essential for basic movements like walking and standing, which can also reduce the risk of falls.
From a standing position, take one step forward with your right foot until it reaches a 90-degree angle. Your left heel should be off the ground, leaving just your toes on the floor. Hold this position for a few seconds before returning to a standing position and repeat this step with the other leg.
The slow and steady movements involved in various yoga poses can lead to improved balance and range of motion for seniors, ultimately preventing falls. Since falls are common among older adults and are one of the leading causes of injuries, yoga can improve your mobility and help you get around more safely.
For beginners, some of the easy yoga poses you can try are the tree pose, warrior II, triangle pose, and the half forward bend.
Higher-intensity exercises to keep your loved ones’ heart pumping
1. Brisk Walking
The most basic low-intensity cardio exercise is walking. Despite this, it can still have major benefits on your cardiovascular health. According to officials at Public Health England (PHE), even just ten minutes of walking in a day could have a major impact on elderly adults and reduce the risk of early death by 15 percent.
Apart from keeping your heart healthy, walking can also improve our joint health and immune systems as well.
2. Jogging or Running
For older adults who still have the capacity to elevate their brisk walking exercise, jogging or running are helpful cardio exercises to get your heart pumping. A study from Humboldt State University reveals that seniors who run regularly can walk as efficiently as 20-somethings. The researchers found that seniors who ran at least 30 minutes, three times a week were less likely to experience age-related physical decline in walking efficiency.
You can start with just 20 mins each day on alternate days of the week to get your body accustomed to the activity.
3. Swimming or Water Aerobics
If you’re looking for a low-impact activity, swimming or water aerobics is an ideal exercise. At its core, swimming is an aerobic workout that trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently. It also lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, boosts blood circulation, and improves your breathing.
Since being in the water isn’t weight-bearing, swimming is also gentle on the joints, making it easy for those suffering from joint pain and discomfort, such as individuals with arthritis.
4. Zumba Cardio
Dance exercises like Zumba cardio is a fun activity that works your heart muscles as you groove to the beat of the music. Since dance requires constant movement at your own pace, it elevates the heart rate to pump oxygen faster through the blood.
More than just a cardio exercise, zumba is also a social activity that can be enjoyed by small to large groups and is suitable for all ages.
5. Indoor Cycling
Aerobic activities like indoor cycling offer plenty of benefits for your body including improving your heart health, lowering stress levels and blood pressure, and strengthening hip and leg muscles all at the same time. Depending on your physical capabilities, indoor cycling can be both a low-intensity and high-intensity exercise.
For older adults with balance problems, indoor cycling is a great alternative to various cardio exercises as it can be done while seated.
Staying safe while staying active
Although engaging in moderate physical activity is highly encouraged among the elderly, you should always consult with a doctor beforehand. At Homage, our care professionals can assess whether you are fit for exercise and even create a manageable care plan to find the most suitable exercises for you according to your preferred intensity level. Even if it’s just a few minutes in a day, make the effort to integrate moderate physical activity into your daily routine. In order to be extra safe and careful, always do these exercises under supervision. Joining an exercise group, such as the group exercise sessions held at active ageing hubs, can make exercising more fun, which can keep you motivated and combat isolation.
Besides staying physically active, it’s also important to maintain our cognitive functions to prevent the onset or delay the progression of conditions such as dementia. Check out this list of elderly-friendly indoor and outdoor activities that can help to train both our body and mind.
- Falls Prevention Facts. (2018, June 04). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.ncoa.org/news/resources-for-reporters/get-the-facts/falls-prevention-facts/
- Fuzhong Li, P. (2018, October 01). Tai Ji Quan vs a Multimodal Exercise Intervention for Preventing Falls in High-Risk Older Adults. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2701631
- Godman, H. (2020, June 26). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110
- Grey, H. (2020, December 04). Sports Injuries 101: Types, Treatment & Prevention. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.homage.sg/health/sports-injuries/
- Grey, H. (2020, November 22). Fall Prevention: 10 Tips & Programs for the Elderly. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.homage.sg/resources/fall-prevention/
- Hui, T. (2020, November 22). Dementia 101: Symptoms, Types, Stages & Prevention. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.homage.sg/health/dementia/
- Hurley, B., & Reuter, I. (2011). Aging, physical activity, and disease prevention. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124955/
- Jogging keeps you young: Seniors who run regularly can walk as efficiently as 20-somethings. (2014, November 20). Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/11/141120141436.htm
- Langhammer, B., Bergland, A., & Rydwik, E. (2018, December 5). The Importance of Physical Activity Exercise among Older People. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6304477/
- Publishing, H. (n.d.). The health benefits of tai chi. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-health-benefits-of-tai-chi
- Ten Brinke, L., Bolandzadeh, N., Nagamatsu, L., Hsu, C., Davis, J., Miran-Khan, K., & Liu-Ambrose, T. (2015, February). Aerobic exercise increases hippocampal volume in older women with probable mild cognitive impairment: A 6-month randomised controlled trial. Retrieved December 18, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4508129/