What are the best exercises for seniors? 5 simple workouts from chair exercises, balance training, stretching and more to lead a healthy life

Learn how exercise combats aging: tips for seniors on improving muscle, brain health and well-being.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any exercise, physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Flexible exercises for body. Sporty man and woman with grey hair stretching on yoga mats with hands to one leg during outdoors workout. Happy married couple with bare feet warming up together at park.
Engaging in regular exercise can help seniors combat muscle loss and improve brain health, recent studies have shown. A Canadian expert shared his best tips on safe and effective workouts for older adults. (Image via Getty)

As we age, maintaining physical activity becomes more and more important, not just for mobility — but for overall health. Recent studies have shown why older adults often move slower and how regular exercise can slow down the natural decline in muscle efficiency.

One study from the University of Colorado Boulder found that older adults use more energy to move which makes them move slower. Dr. Alaa A. Ahmed, senior author of the study, explained to Medical News Today, "With age, our muscle cells may become less efficient in transforming energy into muscle force and ultimately movement... We recruit more muscles, which costs more energy, to perform the same tasks."

Movement slowing as we age can significantly impact our quality of life. It can restrict not only physical but social activities.Dr. Alaa A. Ahmed, via Medical News Today

Another May 2024 study from Stanford Medicine revealed that exercise significantly benefits brain health by improving cognition, mood and reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases. Researchers found positive impacts of exercise on overall health, including the immune system, energy production and metabolism.

How can aging Canadians incorporate exercise into their daily routines — and when should they start? Here's what you need to know.

Senior woman lifting weights in living room
It's never too late to start working out, according to the expert. (Image via Getty)

Steve Di Ciacca, a physical therapist and program manager at the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging, told Yahoo Canada that regular exercise is key in mitigating the natural decline in muscle efficiency and movement.

"Our body is not meant to last forever. We kind of peak in our 30s and 40s, and then with the natural process, we start to lose muscle mass, we start to lose efficiency, we start to lose brain matter. But it's not necessarily the same for everybody," Di Ciacca said. "It is largely dependent on how we really live our lives going forward." Leading a sedentary lifestyle can speed up this decline, making people more frail and dependent on others.

Incorporating regular exercise can slow down and even reverse some aspects of physical and mental decline. "It's never too late to start," Di Ciacca stated. "If we decide 'it's 60, we want to do something about it,' we can actually reverse a significant amount of that decline."

Doing activities that challenge major muscle groups can help counteract muscle loss (sarcopenia), as they stimulate processes that repair and grow your muscles.

Activities like walking, swimming or cycling can improve your heart's ability to supply oxygen and nutrients to muscles. This leads to better stamina and energy levels.

Regular flexibility exercises maintain joint health and movement efficiency. They also reduce stiffness and can improve your range of motion.

Exercises that challenge balance can help better your coordination and reduce the risk of falling.

Regular physical activity supports better sleep, gut health, mental health and reduces the risk of chronic diseases like diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Di Ciacca recommends following the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, which suggest:

  • 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular activity per week (brisk walking, swimming, cycling; for at least 20 to 30 minutes throughout the week)

  • Strength training two-to-three times a week (lifting weights or resistance band exercises)

  • Daily balance challenges (standing on one leg or balance-focused activities)

  • Seven to eight hours of sleep each night

  • Less sedentary time (break up long periods of sitting with movement)

According to Di Ciacca, these are five examples of simple exercises that seniors can try at home to improve their muscle efficiency, flexibility and balance:

Simply stand up from a chair and sit back down with control. This exercise helps with lower body strength and is functional for daily activities like getting out of bed or a chair.

Young blonde girl smiling happy training at sport center.
Being able to stand up with control and lower back down into a hard chair can be very beneficial, Di Ciacca said. (Image via Getty)

Holding light weights or water bottles, march in place. This improves balance and lower body strength.

Marching can help people improve their balance, which is good for walking outdoors, on undulating surfaces or just carrying groceries. (Image via Getty)
Marching can help people improve their balance, which is good for walking outdoors, on undulating surfaces or just carrying groceries. (Image via Getty)

Push/pull with resistance bands

Attach a resistance band to each hand or a sturdy object and perform pushing and pulling motions. This builds upper body strength.

Happy senior lady strengthen her hands when doing workout with rubber expander on blurred background of apartment
Improving functional mobility to do daily things like draw objects to us, push away from the table, pull things, or open doors, is quite important, Di Ciacca said. (Image via Getty)

Stand on one leg for a few seconds, then switch. This exercise improves balance and stability.

Domestic fitness. Fit senior woman in sportswear doing exercises on yoga mat, stretching her leg on home workout, leading active lifestyle, free space
Walking in a bit of a tandem step or walking along a balance beam, or a long line, is also good for balance, the expert advised. (Image via Getty)

Reach as high as you can to extend your entire body, to be as tall as possible, and pause for a few seconds. Then sit on a chair and draw you knees to your chest, wrap your arms around your knees and bring your chin to your chest, creating a "small" ball. This enhances flexibility and range of motion.

Senior man stretching.Beyond a specific mobility or flexibility activity,
Beyond a specific mobility or flexibility activity, "big and small" stretching throughout the day can tick a lot of boxes in moving through our full range of motion, Di Ciacca said. (Image via Getty)

It's also important for seniors to gradually increase the intensity of their workouts to continue seeing the benefits. "When you're doing exercises, they have to be somewhat challenging and it has to be a stress on the body. Otherwise, the body is not going to bother to adapt and get stronger," Di Ciacca stated.

He advised using the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to gauge workout intensity. If 0 is sitting down on a couch, and 10 is being chased by a bear, you want to aim for a five to seven on the scale, Di Ciacca said. You should be exerting energy, getting your heart rate up, but still be able to speak in short sentences.

For those new to exercising, Ciacca offers these tips:

  1. Consult a doctor: If you have any health conditions, check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine.

  2. Start slow: Gradually build up your activity level over a few weeks.

  3. Focus on technique: Use proper form to avoid injuries.

  4. Consistency is key: Make exercise a regular part of your daily routine.

  5. Progress gradually: Increase the intensity and duration of workouts as you become more comfortable.

  6. Make it fun: Choose activities you enjoy to stay motivated.

And remember: it's never too late to start.

For information on structured evidence-based group fitness classes and instructor educations please visit the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging.

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