In this article I'll discuss the best exercises for the elderly. You'll get a comprehensive understanding of the best type of exercises elderly people should be doing as well as specific exercise recommendations and video tutorials.
Last updated March 2021
The best exercises for the elderly are resistance/strength based ones.
Before showing you a variety of specific resistance exercises that you can do at home along with video tutorials, I'm going to explain exactly why resistance based exercises are the best for the elderly population.
If you'd rather skip ahead and see the exercises I recommended click HERE to scroll down to them.
HOWEVER, I strongly recommended sticking around and reading through what I'm about to teach you before hand.
Why do older adults need to do resistance exercises?
We all know that "exercise" is important for better health.
The problem is, many of us don't know the best or the most optimal TYPE of exercise for our goals.
For the elderly and older adult population, resistance based exercise is a must. There's simply no getting around it.
That's not to say that other forms of exercise are bad, it's just that resistance based exercise is ultimately required to preserve or grow muscle mass, strength and function.
Resistance exercise is as it sounds. Exercise that provides resistance.
The resistance is being provided to our muscles by a load or a weight and gravity.
On Earth, we permanently live within gravity's force. In order for us to move around we have to be strong enough to overcome Earth's gravitational pull.
Take a second and lift your arm above your head....
In order to do that, your muscles have to be strong enough to overcome Earth's gravitational pull.
When humans are in space they don't experience Earth's gravity anymore. They have no use for their muscles.
If astronauts didn't do any resistance based exercise in space they would lose their muscle mass very quickly.
In fact studies have shown that a spaceflight lasting between 5-11 days can see an astronaut lose ~20% of their muscle mass. To combat this rapid loss of muscle (known as atrophy), astronauts are required to do resistance based exercises for 2.5 hours per day whilst in space.
Rapid loss of muscle is also seen in older adults who have to undergo hospital stays where exercise or even basic movement is often not possible.
This study took a small group of healthy older adults (between 63 and 72 years old) and subject them to 10 days of bed rest. They were given the recommended dietary allowance for protein. All measures of lower extremity strength were significantly lower after just 10 days of bed rest.
The good news is (outside of the 2 extreme situations I just mentioned) for the most part we are using our muscles to some extent on a daily basis.
Every time you stand up, sit down, walk around, go and up down stairs, go shopping, drive a car, brush your teeth, have shower etc etc, you are using your muscles.
In fact even as you are sat reading this right now you are using some muscles to help support your upright posture.
The not so good news is, as we age these typical daily activities are not enough to maintain our strength and muscle mass.
When we are in our 20, 30's and 40's we can get away with not deliberately doing any resistance exercises. However as we reach our 50's, 60's and onwards we can't get away with it anymore.
And this is clearly demonstrated by what we see in society. Older adults struggling with mobility.
Like I said before, there is simply no getting around it. Unless you do regular resistance training you will lose muscle mass and strength.
It might not affect you today, tomorrow or even next month, but over time you will eventually start feeling the affects of losing your muscle mass.
Not having the ability to perform basic jobs and movements that you once could do with ease can be very stressful. Luckily, even those who are this stage of muscle and strength loss can regain it through resistance training.
It's far easier to act before and prevent muscle loss from happening.
What is resistance training?
So hopefully you've got a much better understanding of why the elderly and older adults need to do resistance training.
Now let's look at what resistance training actually is.
There are certain ways to make resistance training really really effective. And that's what we're looking for. If we're going to be putting the effort in to do it in the first place, we want to make sure we're doing it well.
We know that gravity is the force that we (our muscles) are constantly fighting against.
And we know that in order to be able to overcome gravity's force in our everyday lives as an older adult, we're going to need to do some resistance training.
Effective resistance training is when you lift a load or a weight through a limbs full range of motion.
Let me explain that a little more clearly.
Our muscles pull on our bones to move our joints.
For example, the bicep muscle is attached to your shoulder joint and lower arm bone. When you bend your elbow, your bicep muscle is pulling on the lower arm bone to make the elbow joint move.
Take a second to bend your elbow joint and notice that you can bend it quite far. Pretty much until your hand is touching your shoulder.
This same thing happens at all the joints in the body. Our muscles pull on the bones to allow our joints to move.
As the joint moves backwards and forwards the muscle is either stretching and getting longer or contracting and becoming shorter.
Take the bicep muscle for example again. As you bend your elbow upwards the bicep muscle is contracting and getting shorter. As your straighten the elbow out, the bicep muscle stretches and gets longer.
The contraction phase is referred to as concentric and the lengthening phase is referred to as eccentric.
In order to effectively train our muscles we must take them through the full range of motion whilst under load.
And that's what resistance training is. Concentrically and eccentrically contracting our muscles whilst they are under load.
Doing this just once isn't enough though. And thats where repetitions and sets come in.
A repetition or rep is how many times you move the muscle through it's full range of motion. Grab you phone for a second and bend your elbow back and fourth 10 times.
The phone is acting as the load or the weight. Each time you bend your elbow back and fourth is 1 rep. So if you do it 10 times that's 10 reps. Stop after 10 reps and take a break. You can then refer to those 10 reps as 1 set. You've done 1 set of 10 reps.
There is no rule to this. A set can have as many reps as you want. You may choose to do 3 sets of 20 reps with a 1 minute rest period between each set.
However there are optimal rep ranges and set amounts that you can follow.
The weight or load also has to be considered. Your phone probably isn't heavy enough to provide enough resistance. That's where dumbbells come in really handy. They are literally designed to be heavy and comfortable to hold.
So, resistance training is when we place our muscles under a load and take them through a full range of motion for a certain amount of reps and sets.
Our resistance based programmes in the Wise Fitness Academy set out all the set and reps as well as the best weights to use so you don't have to worry about it.
Why other types of exercise are less effective than resistance training for growing and preserving muscle mass
Now that you've got a better understanding of exactly what resistance based exercising actually is, we can apply our knowledge and clearly see how and why other forms of exercise are less effective at helping to preserve and grow muscle mass.
Let's take walking or jogging as an example.
No one is denying that regularly walking or jogging is extremely good for our overall health.
However, how good are these activities for growing and preserving muscle mass?
Lets apply what we've learnt and take a look.
When we walk our hip and knee joints do bend a little bit but not all the way. There is a limited range of motion.
With just regular walking there is only a small amount movement at the joints.
Also, consider the load. We don't typically have a lot of load or weight when we're walking around in day to day to life.
In general, when we walk there is a limited range of motion for the muscles and a limited load. And so you can immediately see why walking isn't great for growing and preserving muscle mass. It's missing 2 of the vital components that are required for muscle growth.
If you were to strap some weight to each leg and deliberately raise your knee nice and high with each step as you walking it would become far more effective at helping to grow your muscles. Doing this would be less like normal walking and more like an actual resistance training exercise.
In fact, we do this exercise a lot within our sessions in the Wise Fitness Academy.
Another popular type of exercise that promotes strength gain is Yoga.
Yoga is great. It certainly does provide some resistance to muscles and lots of yoga positions will have you move your muscles through a full range of motion.
What Yoga lacks is structured reps and sets and of course LOAD. You're only ever using your body weight with Yoga and so your muscles have a limited load to adapt to. With resistance training you can progressively increase your load over time and continue to make strength adaptions.
The same can be said for pretty much all exercise types outside of deliberate resistance training.
Yes, some other exercise types will help to an extent. It's not like no other types of exercise will do anything to help with muscle preservation. Of course they will.
But resistance training is BY FAR the most optimal type. And pretty much the only exercise that will truly prevent loss of muscle mass, strength and function as we age.
If resistance training is so important for the elderly then why do so few elderly people do it?
And one that I have pondered a LOT over the years.
I think it comes down to a few fundamental reasons which I will go through now.
- Lack of education
Put simply, elderly people and older adults just don't know the importance of resistance training. And it's hardly surprising.
It's not exactly mainstream information.
Before reading this article could you have defined exactly what resistance training is and how it differs to other forms of exercise regarding muscle preservation and growth?
As a society, we know exercise is important for health. But most people can't distinguish which type of exercise is optimal for their goals.
Peoples choice of exercise is mostly determined by their peers. And because so few older adults currently partake in resistance training it just doesn't trend.
Resistance training is currently mostly associated with younger people who want to build muscly beach body type physiques.
We're trying to change that one client at a time!
- Societal "norms"
I kind of eluded to this a second ago but it's a really important part of why there are so few elderly people doing resistance exercise.
Society isn't set up for resistance training among the elderly. Take a look at commercial gyms. How many elderly people do you see working out in the weights area? Very few to none!
Have a look online. There are very few companies dedicated to elderly resistance training.
Most online resources for elderly people are government websites and charity websites that offer vague and generic advice.
Will resistance training help with cardiovascular fitness?
Resistance training is not typically associated with increased cardiovascular fitness but it does go a long way to improving it.
It's funny, because whilst running it pretty rubbish at helping to preserve or grow muscle mass, resistance training is pretty good at improving cardiovascular fitness.
It kind of highlights just how damn good resistance training really is.
You try doing a set of 10 squats and see if your heart rate goes up and you become a little out of breath. If it doesn't then you must have pretty good cardio fitness already.
Muscles require oxygen to work. So when you continuously force them to contract during your reps and sets the demand for oxygen increases a lot. This demand for oxygen will place stress on your cardiovascular system and ultimately improve your cardiovascular fitness and health.
Now you know why long distance runners are normally so thin and lean. They have a limited amount of muscle mass requiring oxygen and so they can run long distances at speed as a result.
It's fair to say that resistance training will only take your cardiovascular fitness to a certain level. If you want to have better cardio you'll need to train that specifically on top of your resistance training.
Will resistance training help with balance?
Being stronger will do wonders for you balance and confidence. If you have nice strong leg muscles you can move around more confidently in general.
Most very frail people will take very short shuffle steps. That's because they don't have the strength to allow for bigger steps and broader movements. If a frail person took a wrong step or stepped on some unexpected uneven ground they would have the strength to correct themselves and they would likely fall over.
Have good strength is a key to better balance.
However you can incorporate more specific balance exercises into your exercise routines.
I'm a big fan of moving laterally (side to side) and backwards.
In our everyday lives we typically walk forwards and that mostly it. But we live in a 3 dimensional world and so moving in all planes of motion is important for better balance.
Lot's of the Wise Fitness Academy workouts incorporates side to side and backward movements as part of the warm ups.
There are lots of resistance based exercises that also really help to develop better balance. These are known as unilateral exercises.
A unilateral exercise is when you are using 1 limb at a time instead of 2 limbs together. For example when we do a regular squat both legs are working at the same time. However when when do a lunge we are working 1 leg at a time. This requires good balance.
Will resistance exercises improve my core strength?
Of course. Your core is a muscle group just like your legs are or your back is and so it can be made stronger using resistance based exercises.
When most people think of core training they tend to think of crunches or sit ups.
These 2 exercises are fairly effective but there are much better options to choose from.
In fact, every time you perform a big compound exercise (and exercise that uses more than 1 big muscle) such as a squat or a lunge the core muscles are heavily recruited naturally.
Just by doing regular resistance training your core will develop very good strength.
Can resistance exercises be done at home?
Yes they absolutely can.
For the purposes of preserving and growing muscle mass you can do resistance exercises at home very effectively.
You may need to invest in some equipment over time as you get stronger.
The Wise Fitness Academy clients mostly do their exercise sessions in their living rooms or kitchens.
You only need a small amount of space to complete your resistance workouts.
If you are a member of a gym or are thinking about becoming a member of one that's great too.
Gyms are purpose built places for getting stronger. They are often associated with big burly muscled up men but the reality is a gym is there for anyone to get fitter and stronger.
Whether you're training in a gym or training at home, effective resistance training can be done with either option.
What are some of the best exercises for the elderly?
- The Squat
The squat is a lower body exercise that most of us are familiar with.
The squat is essentially the movement pattern known as sitting down and standing up.
Most of us do at least some squats on a daily basis without even knowing it. Sitting down to breakfast, sitting down to watch TV or sitting down in your car are a few examples of when we are required to squat.
However most people don't integrate squatting as part of a fitness programme with a measured amount of sets and reps.
There's a huge difference between sitting down in your chair for breakfast and sitting down and standing up repeatedly 30 times.
It's the repetition that builds strength and muscles.
(If you can't see the video click HERE to view)
- The shoulder press
The shoulder press is fantastic upper body exercise that works the shoulder. The name kind of gives that one away!
To perform a shoulder press you'll need to hold into to something in each hand to provide resistance to the muscles as you perform the movement.
If you don't have dumbbells or other weights then you can improvise very easily.
Lot's of the Wise Fitness Academy clients use bottles of water which works really well.
You can do the shoulder press whilst sitting or whilst standing.
(If you can't see the video click HERE to view)
- The Lunge
The lunge is a unilateral movement meaning you work 1 leg at a time. For this reason it's a great resistance exercise that will also help develop excellent balance.
If you're new to this particular exercise you can use a chair a stick and a support until you develop enough confidence and balance to able to the exercise without.
(If you can't see the video you can click HERE to view)
- Tricep dips
Tricep dips are a great upper body movement that will work your triceps and shoulders as well as some back muscles. You can use the edge of a chair do perform them.
(If you can't see the video click HERE to view)
These are just a few examples of great resistance exercise that you can do from home or in the gym.
Best exercises for the elderly - FAQ
It's very important to check with your doctor before engaging in any type of new physical activity.
In general resistance training is perfectly safe for the elderly.
Lifting appropriate weights and doing appropriate exercises is an important consideration and that's why having a coach or personal trainer can be hugely beneficial.
Yes - In fact it's recommended that people with arthritis do regular resistance training as it helps to strengthen bone and muscles surrounding arthritic joints.
It's normal to feel some pain during exercise if you have arthritis but the pain is normally relieved over time.
Check out our article on exercising with arthritis for much more detail.