A Whole-Body Exercise Routine for Seniors with Limited Endurance

Ask a variety of older adults what’s most important to them, and you’ll probably receive similar answers: remaining independent, mentally sharp, and active enough to do the things most important to them. The same things we all want from our lives.

Although the average lifespan for Americans has increased by about 5 years since the 1960’s, living a longer life is not a guarantee that those extra years will be spent as independent, active, pain-free seniors. So, one of the of the most pressing questions for healthcare and administrative professionals who work with older adults is…  How can we support our senior population in their desire to grow older healthfully so they can enjoy those extra years?

Successful aging requires planning and commitment.

Especially when it comes to regular exercise. Unfortunately, many older adults do not begin a strength training and exercise program until facing health problems. It’s a vicious cycle: Less exercise and activity means weaker bones, reduced muscle strength and flexibility, which leads to health problems that make taking on an exercise routine that much more difficult.

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So, while the ideal is a whole-body exercise routine that includes a variety of strength training and cardio activities and amounts to an average of 30 minutes of exercise each day, that simply isn’t feasible for all older adults. Especially seniors with health challenges or who are just starting out with an exercise program.

So, what are the most effective whole-body exercises for improving overall physical conditioning with limited endurance?

Here’s a list of the 5 best exercises for seniors who want to retain or rebuild their independence:

The Leg Press

Strong leg muscles are essential to maintaining independence, supporting everyday activities such as sitting down, standing up, and walking. But strong leg muscles are also essential for seniors who want to maintain interests and activities that require physical movement – playing with their grandchildren, walking on a beach or hiking, swimming, playing golf, walking up the stairs at a Broadway show… the list is varied and endless.

Properly done, leg press exercises strengthen nearly all the leg muscles, including the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip adductors, glutes, and calves. As a seated exercise, the leg press is also practical and beneficial for older adults with full use of their legs, but who require the use of a wheelchair for many daily activities.

One word of caution: When performing the leg press, it’s important that the individual is able to sit on the leg press machine in a comfortable position that supports their back. Even when training with low to zero resistance, there is a risk of back injury without back support or if the machine isn’t properly adjusted to their height and weight.

Triceps Press

What the leg press does for lower body strength, the triceps press accomplishes for upper body strength. This exercise builds strength in the muscles of the arms, shoulders, and chest. Upper body strength is vital for daily activities such as raising and lowering one’s self into an armchair or wheelchair, lifting and carrying items and performing routine daily tasks like grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, home maintenance, and driving.

To prevent injury and minimize stress on joints when performing the triceps press, it’s important that the seat back be straight up and down, and the seatbelt is securely fastened. The machine’s seat should be adjusted to a height that allows the elbow to be bent at a 90-degree angle with hands gripping the handles directly below the shoulder joint.

The Compound Row

In contrast to the pushing motion of the leg and triceps press, the compound row requires a pulling motion that builds strength in the various muscles in the upper back and the biceps – the opposite upper body muscles of the triceps press.

The compound row and triceps press work together for balanced upper body strength training that’s as important for posture and balance as it is for independent functioning. The compound row can also go a long way towards decreasing upper back pain and can even support improved breathing by strengthening the muscles required to stand and sit up straight.

Low Back Extension

Strong lower back muscles are vital for living an active, pain-free, independent life.  Unfortunately, low back pain is common amongst older adults and can have a tremendously negative impact on quality of life. It is estimated that approximately 1/3 of Americans are living with lower back pain, with the percentage much higher amongst older adults.

The low back extension strengthens the muscles that control the movement of the lumbar spine which can greatly decrease discomfort and increase functionality in seniors who have been living with weak back muscles.

Neck Extension

If you can hold your head up all day without pain, thank your neck extensor muscles. Considering the fact that an average head weighs about 15 pounds, it’s no wonder that as the neck muscles become weaker, many seniors have difficulty holding their head up for extended amounts of time. Not being able to hold your head up high makes it difficult and frustrating to eat and drink, breath, and even carry on a conversation.

Even in seniors with enough strength in these muscles to hold their head up throughout the day, when neck muscles are weak, pain and discomfort can set in.

Performing one set of each of these 5 exercises will take a total of about 10 minutes of training time.

Maintaining control of the movement is one of the most important aspects of strength training in older adults, so slow movement and coordinating breathing is essential. In most cases, resistance for each exercise should be challenging enough to fatigue the muscles within 8-12 repetitions. As soon as it becomes routine to reach 12 repetitions with perfect form, increase resistance by a ¼ lb.

Exercises that strengthen the muscles in the core are also important to long-term health and independence. Here are a couple of the most effective core exercises for seniors of various ability levels.