Four of the Best Exercises for Maintaining Independence as We Age
When it comes to physical fitness, any movement is better than no movement. However, we are unlikely to reap the many positive benefits that come with exercise if we aren’t intentional about moving every day.
In general, adults of any age should aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity (walking, swimming, cycling, running) AND at least 2 sessions a week of full-body strength training that includes exercises that strengthen all the major muscle groups.
But, for older adults, there are a handful of foundational exercises that are particularly beneficial for maintaining the ability to live independently for as long as possible. The following exercises should be a part of most seniors’ exercise routines because they support the kind of movements necessary to perform normal daily tasks. However, these exercises should not be considered “enough” physical exercise. Rather, they are meant to be added as a supplement to a regular physical fitness routine that includes regular aerobic and strength training exercises.
For most people, the following exercises can be performed anywhere – at home or in the gym. Most can even be squeezed into the day here and there. For example, perform a few reps while waiting for the coffee to brew in the morning or while watching your favorite television show. The most important thing is to be deliberate and intentional about doing these exercises every day. And, as with every exercise, when a movement begins to feel too easy, make it more challenging by applying the recommended progressions.
This exercise is as simple as it sounds and supports our ability to sit down and stand back up in any situation with ease. Of all the simple, daily movements we perform on any given day, the ability to stand up and sit down is often the determining factor in whether we are able to live independently.
How to perform this exercise: Stand in front of a sturdy chair with your feet between hip-width apart and your back facing the seat of the chair. Make sure that your heels are no further than six inches from the seat of the chair. Stretch your arms out straight in front of you, so that they are parallel to the floor.
Consciously tighten your core muscles and slowly bend your knees, pushing your hips back, and lower yourself onto the chair. Pause for a second or two, then press through your heels to stand back up. As you complete the movement, keep your torso as stable as possible and keep your hands out in front of you so that you are not tempted to use your hands to push yourself back up into a standing position.
That entire movement – standing, sitting, and standing up again – is one rep. Most people should aim to complete two or three sets of 10 reps every day.
Exercise progression: When you are able to perform this exercise with ease for the recommended number of reps each day, make it more challenging by swapping the normal size chair for something lower to the ground. For example, use a fireplace hearth, or sturdy coffee table, or the steps in front of your home.
Eventually, work up to being able to perform full bodyweight squats without a chair or supporting surface. With each squat, make sure you have something within arm's reach that you can grab onto if you start to feel unbalanced – such as a sturdy chair, table, or countertop. Lower your body as far as you can, while keeping your torso straight and your heels firmly on the ground.
#2: Tandem Stance
The tandem stance is an exercise that’s often used as a clinical assessment of standing balance. But it’s also a beneficial exercise to perform on a regular, daily basis because it improves balance and can decrease the risk of falling.
How to perform this exercise: Stand up straight with your feet together. Consciously tighten your core muscles. Step one foot in front of the other so that the front of one heel is directly in front of the other foot’s toes as if you were walking a tight rope. Hold the position for at least 30 seconds, and up to 2 minutes, then switch the position of your feed and repeat.
If you feel unsteady while performing this exercise, place one hand against the wall, countertop, or sturdy chair to steady yourself. Even if you feel stable while performing this exercise, it’s a good idea to have a sturdy surface within arm’s reach. It’s not uncommon to lose balance unexpectedly, and it's important to be able to steady yourself if necessary.
Exercise progression: When you can perform this exercise with ease, without holding onto anything for support, try holding a lightweight in each hand. The weights you use can be dumbbells, or even canned food or water bottles.
To increase the challenge further, and strengthen core muscles, hold the weight in only one hand at a time and imagine that there is a string coming up through the top of your head, pulling your spine to the ceiling. Tighten your core and be conscious of not leaning to the side while you do this.
#3: Farmer’s Walk
Walking is one of the most important abilities for living an independent, active life. It’s also something many of us take for granted. But, our ability to walk is not a given. Without working to maintain and strengthen the muscles, joints, and ligaments that make walking possible, it’s an ability that can be lost.
The following exercise supports our ability to walk by strengthening core muscles, but it’s also vital to engage in regular activities that strengthen the muscles in the legs.
How to perform this exercise: This exercise is easiest to do in a large open space but can be modified for smaller spaces.
Stand upright, with your spine straight, and your feet hip-width apart. Hold a light dumbbell (or canned food, or water bottle) in each hand, with your arms held steadily by your sides, palms facing your body. Consciously tighten your core and slowly walk forward without swinging your arms. As you walk, imagine that there is a string going up through your spine, exiting the top of your head and pulling up toward the sky. Walk for at least 30 seconds and up to 5 minutes in one direction before turning around and repeating the walk in the opposite direction.
If you are performing this exercise in a small room, you might not be able to walk in one direction for 30 seconds. That’s ok. Walk in one direction for as long as you can and then simply turn around and keep walking.
Exercise progression: Increase the amount of weight you are carrying. Increasing the weight will intensify the burden placed on your core, back, and glutes, strengthening those muscles. As an added bonus, increasing the weight will also increase grip strength. Grip strength is important to a wide variety of daily tasks, from opening a jar to driving a car.
#4: Single-Leg Stand
When you think about it, there are a lot of things we do every day that require us to be able to support ourselves on one leg at a time – walking, climbing stairs, getting into a car, or stepping out of the shower are just a few examples. The following exercise strengthens our ability to remain stable during tasks that require using one leg at a time. If performed regularly, it will also help resolve any muscular imbalances between the left and right sides of the body that can increase our risk of falling.
How to perform this exercise: Stand upright, with both feet together. Consciously tighten your core muscles. Lift one foot off of the floor, holding it as much as 6 inches from the ground. Hold this position for at least 30 seconds. As you do, imagine that there is a string going up through your spine, exiting the top of your head and pulling up toward the sky. Lower your foot and repeat with the other leg.
If you feel unbalanced while performing this exercise, hold on to a wall, countertop, or sturdy chair. In general, it’s a good idea to be within arm’s reach of a sturdy surface while performing this exercise, even if you feel well balanced. Losing our balance can be unexpected, and having a sturdy surface nearby is an important safety consideration.
Exercise progression: In the middle of the move, while holding one foot off of the ground, slowly point your lifted foot out in front of you. Hold for a few seconds, then move the lifted food to the side. Hold for a few seconds, then move the lifted foot so that it is out behind you. Hold for a few seconds, then bring the lifted foot back to center and lower it to the ground.