Six Exercises to Help Seniors Build Strength, Improve Balance and Prevent Falls

Exercises that help us perform everyday activities become increasingly important as we get older.

Our balance declines and we lose muscle, making ordinary activities like climbing stairs more difficult, and increasing the risk of injury and falls, says

Rachael Holden,

a fitness educator who specializes in older people. She recommends “functional exercises,” which replicate the movements people make in daily activities.

“Having confidence in your ability to move safely in your day-to-day routine allows you to be more independent as you get older,” says Ms. Holden, who works with seniors at insurer and healthcare provider


neighborhood center in Matthews, N.C. She says she builds workouts around exercises that mimic everyday functions, like bending down to pick up groceries or standing up from a chair.

This six-exercise routine can be performed at home as a circuit. Seniors with a higher level of fitness can make these exercises more challenging by increasing repetitions, sets or time and by adding weight, she says. With any exercise routine, consult a physician before starting, start slow and focus on technique.

The Workout
Sit to Stand

Why: As we age, weak legs, poor balance and stiffness in the back and ankles can make sitting down into a chair and standing up again challenging, says Ms. Holden. The sit-to-stand exercise is a beginner-friendly alternative to a squat and will build lower-body strength and stability.

How: Sit in a chair or on a couch. Keep your spine tall and arms long by your sides. Push down through your feet to stand tall. Slowly lower back down to a seated position. Perform 10 repetitions. “You can do these during commercial breaks when you watch TV,” says Ms. Holden.

Options: If this is challenging, place the chair next to a table or wall so that you can rest one hand on a surface for balance as you rise and lower. Make the exercise more challenging by hovering above the chair rather than sitting or try to stand and sit using the strength of one leg.

The sit-to-stand exercise is a beginner-friendly alternative to a squat.

Single-Leg Balance Progression

Why: Training for balance and leg strength as we get older can help prevent falls, says Ms. Holden.

How: Stand tall alongside a wall, table or counter. Balance on your right foot. Place both hands on a supporting surface to aid your balance. Eventually use just your fingertips, then one hand, then no hands. Start with balancing for five seconds and work up to 30 seconds on each leg. “Integrate this into your routine by balancing on one leg while doing dishes, brushing your teeth or preparing dinner,” suggests Ms. Holden.

Options: When this becomes easy, close your eyes or stand on an unstable surface like a pillow or Bosu ball.

Wall Push-Ups

Why: “It’s important to minimize disorientation in older adults,” says Ms. Holden. “When we are lying down and then stand up, our blood pressure drops. This can leave people feeling woozy, especially if they have high blood pressure.” Performing push-ups on a wall works the core and upper body from a position that won’t leave you feeling dizzy, Ms. Holden says.

How: Stand about one foot away from a wall. Place your hands on the wall just beyond shoulder-width apart. Slowly lower your chest toward the wall while keeping your back straight. The further you step your feet away from the wall, the more difficult the exercise becomes. Perform 5 to 10 repetitions.

Options: These can be performed against a table or chair.

A modified push-up against a table works the core and upper body.

Calf Raises

Why: “Calf raises build leg strength while also working range of motion in the ankle joints,” she says.

How: Stand with feet hips-width apart. Push down through the balls of your feet and raise your heels off the floor. Pause at the top then slowly lower down. Repeat 10 repetitions.

Options: If you feel unstable, perform from a seated position or perform the exercise alongside a wall or chair that you can hold on to for balance. When the exercise becomes easy, try performing on a single leg.


How do you build balance and strength? Join the conversation below.

Grocery Bag Deadlift

Why: “We pick things up more than we realize throughout the day,” says Ms. Holden. “Learning to lift objects using our legs and core can help us avoid straining the lower back.”

How: Stand hip-width apart, knees slightly bent with a grocery bag in front of each foot. Hinge at the hips and stick your rear end back as you lower down to grab the handles of the bags in each hand. Raise the bags up to shin height. Keep a soft bend in the knees and a straight back as you engage the glutes and hamstrings to return to standing position. Slowly lower the bags back to shin height. Repeat 10 repetitions.

Options: Hold one grocery bag in both hands or substitute kettlebells or dumbbells.

Deadlifts with grocery bags focus on using the legs and core to avoid lower back strain.

Step Ups

Why: The step up is a basic exercise that helps build balance, coordination, core strength and ankle flexibility. “A lot of seniors stumble because they shuffle rather than pick their feet up,” she says. “Step ups get you in the habit of lifting each foot while maintaining balance.”

How: Find a sturdy step around 7 inches in height. Ms. Holden suggests a step in your home, on your porch, a sidewalk curb or an aerobic step. If you are worried about balance, use a step near a railing or wall for support, she says. As your right foot steps up, your left hand should swing forward and vice versa. Make sure your entire foot lands on the step. Repeat at a comfortable pace for 10 to 30 seconds gradually increasing speed.

Option: If this is challenging, start by walking in place with high knees.

Write to Jen Murphy at [email protected]

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