Strength and flexibility are two aspects of health that are important for all seniors, regardless of age or ability level. Being strong and flexible enough to move through a normal range of motion makes daily life easier and more enjoyable. Stronger muscles also support balance and stability, reducing the risk of falling and injury.
But, perhaps the most important reason for older adults to focus on strength and flexibility is because of the impact it can have on increasing their level of independence - even for seniors whose movement is limited.
Research shows that lack of autonomy leads to greater stress and poor health in people of all ages. As we age, decreased strength and mobility can contribute to a steady loss of independence, leading to loneliness, frustration, and depression. Regular exercise is a powerful antidote to these challenges, having a direct impact on both physical and mental well-being.
But, for older adults with mobility and balance issues, and those recovering from surgery or injury, building strength and flexibility is a challenge. After all, when your range of motion is severely limited, so is your number of exercise options.
In situations where standing exercises are simply not possible, seated workouts are essential.
An effective, whole-body seated workout includes movements designed to increase mobility, support cardio fitness, improve muscular strength, and expand flexibility. What follows are some of the best chair exercises for seniors. With regular training, these exercises can have a significant impact on health and happiness.
Please note that several of the following seated exercises are not suitable for seniors who use wheelchairs. For wheelchair users, these 8 seated exercises are an effective way to build whole-body strength and flexibility.
1. Toe Tap Seated Exercises
This exercise strengthens the muscles in the lower front and rear of your legs, muscles necessary for many normal daily activities such as safely stepping up or over objects, climbing and descending stairs, walking up or down a hill, or across an uneven surface.
Sit up straight with abs engaged and feet flat on the ground. Keeping your heels on the ground, tilt your toes up towards the ceiling and then back down to the floor. Repeat several times.
To increase the range of motion, sit as close to the edge of the chair as is safe and extend both legs straight out in front of you, keeping your heels on the ground. Point toes down towards the ground and then up towards the ceiling.
To increase the level of difficulty, raise one leg in the air so that it’s straight out in front of you, keeping the other foot flat on the floor. Tilt toes up and down several times. Lower the foot back down to the floor and repeat with the other leg.
2. The Limited Motion Squeeze
This exercise requires an extremely small range of motion while effectively building strength in the inner thighs, glutes, and triceps.
Sit straight, with abdominal muscles retracted to support the spine, knees together, and feet flat on the floor. Sit as close to the edge of the chair as is safe and comfortable. Place both hands palms down on either side of the chair just outside of hips, with elbows slightly bent. Squeeze knees and glutes together tightly while pushing down on the chair with hands, extending elbows. This slight movement will cause you to sit taller, but you should not ever leave your seat. Release and repeat.
For a greater challenge, hold the squeeze for 3-10 seconds.
3. Seated Jumping Jacks
Jumping jacks are great for cardio, but impossible for many older adults. This seated alternative will get your heart pumping without requiring you to leave your chair.
Sit up straight and as close to the edge of the chair as is safe and comfortable, with abdominal muscles retracted, knees bent and together, and feet flat on the floor. Place your arms at your sides with the elbows bent and palms facing forward, like you are getting ready to catch a very large ball. Quickly open legs out to sides, flexing feet and pointing toes to the ceiling while keeping your heels on the floor. At the same time, extend both arms straight over head. Return to start and repeat.
Please note that the faster you perform this exercise, the harder you’ll work. Increase speed to increase the level of difficulty; go slowly and add brief rest periods between repetitions to go easy.
4. Do the Twist
This fun exercise will get your heart pumping while strengthening the muscles of the core, inner thighs, arms, and shoulders.
Sit up straight, as close to the edge of the chair as is safe, with both feet flat on the floor. Retract abdominal muscles and pull your heels off the floor so that only your toes are touching the ground. Hang both arms down at your sides, then raise them up so that they extend out to each side and are parallel to the floor, palms facing down. Extend your left leg straight out to the side, keeping your toes pointed. As you do, lean forward slightly, twist at the waist, and reach your left arm towards the inside of your right foot, reaching as far as is comfortable and safe. Switch sides and repeat the motion.
If your range of motion is limited or you are experiencing balance issues, move through this exercise slowly. To increase the level of difficulty, move through the motion faster.
5. Seated Sit-Ups
This exercise strengthens both the back and abdominal muscles while keeping the lower body engaged.
Sit up straight in the center of your chair, with knees bent and together, and both feet flat on the floor. Lift your heels so that your toes are pointed but still touching the floor. Place both hands behind your head, locking your fingers together. Retract your abdominal muscles and lean back until your shoulder blades are touching the back of the chair. Bring your body forward and twist your right elbow towards the crossing outside of left knee. Return to start and repeat.
This exercise can easily be modified for different ability levels by limiting or increasing range of motion through the twist. For stronger adults with a wide range of motion, reach the elbow all the way to touch the outside of the opposite knee. For those with more limited strength and flexibility, do not bend forward at all. Simply twist the body while keeping your spine straight.
6. Seated Running
“Running” while seated not only gives you a nice cardio boost, but engages the abdominal muscles, arms, and legs.
Sit in the center of the chair and lean back until your shoulder blades are resting against the back of the chair. Extend both legs in front of you with heels on the floor and toes pointed towards the ceiling. Grip the sides of the seat with your hands for extra stability. Suck in your abdominal muscles and lift your heels an inch or two off the floor. Bend your left knee up towards your chest, turning your right shoulder in towards the left knee as you do, then quickly switch sides. Repeat as quickly as you safely and comfortably can.
To increase intensity, bend your arms at the elbow at 90-degree angles and swing them towards the opposite knee as you “run”, simulating the motions your arms would make if you were actually running.
7. Leg Lift Twist
This seated exercise targets the muscles in the quadriceps, inner thighs, and abs.
Sit up straight in the center of your chair, with your back a few inches away from the backrest and both feet flat on the floor. Extend your right leg out in front of you, keeping it on the floor. Cross your arms over your chest. Suck in your abdominal muscles and rotate torso to the right while simultaneously lifting your right leg a few inches off the floor, squeezing your knees together as you do. Rotate your torso back to center while lowering your leg back to the starting position. Repeat several times in a row with one leg, then switch to the other.
If you can, try to exhale during the twist and lift, and inhale as you return to the start. Timing your breathing in this way will help to further activate your abdominal muscles.
For older adults who are confined to a wheelchair, here are 8 seated exercises that, when completed together, provide an effective whole-body strength training workout.