The National Institutes of Health recommend functional fitness exercises that support four fitness goals for seniors: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Many exercises and activities can address all four goals at once. Plus, most exercises work together to reinforce each other’s benefits. Increased endurance leads to more exercise, which builds strength and supports flexibility and improves balance.
Further, Katie, national director of life enrichment at The Goodman Group, says, "Research shows that with regular exercise, many of the physiological changes related to aging can be prevented and postponed."
The following four types of effective functional fitness exercises for seniors are simple, safe, and can be done almost anywhere.
(If you’re just starting an exercise program or have physical limitations, check with your doctor to make sure these exercises are right and safe for you.)
These exercises focus on working the cardiovascular system. They can improve circulation and help lower blood pressure and heart rate. Because they help improve your ability to walk farther, faster, and longer, and they can even make everyday activities like shopping and housework easier and more enjoyable!
Try This Endurance Exercise: Walking
Walking is possibly the single best exercise for seniors — or anyone, really. Walking addresses all four types of functional fitness goals. In particular, it strengthens major muscle groups, and it supports endurance, balance, and flexibility. The fact that it can be done anywhere is a real plus. A walk in nature is not only good for the body, but good for the soul, as well. Walking with a friend or family member can turn mundane exercise into a rewarding social event. If you’re not already a regular walker, or if you're rehabilitating an injury or have other physical limitations, be sure to start out slowly. Even ten minutes of normal paced walking per day can be effective. Build up speed and duration as your body allows.
Other endurance exercises include swimming, jogging, yard work, and tennis.
Strength exercises are aimed at building and strengthening muscles. Also called resistance training, this includes weight lifting exercises that progressively train your muscles to become stronger. They are usually done using free weights, machines, resistance bands, or a combination of tools. Building your strength means not only building and toning muscle, but being able to carry groceries, do household chores, and lift grandchildren with ease.
Try This Strength Exercise: Wall Push-Ups
Wall push-ups can help improve upper body strength, especially in your arms and chest, without the intense exertion of traditional floor push-ups. Stand slightly less than arm’s length from the wall, close enough to place your palms flat on the wall. Keeping your body straight, bend your elbows and lean forward toward the wall. Then press away from the wall to your starting position. The closer you are to the wall, the easier the exercise will be. Start close and slowly work yourself farther away as you build up strength and stamina.
Improving balance helps provide stability in all your daily activities. This is especially helpful for preventing falls. Balance exercises can be as simple as standing on one leg for as long as you can. When you’ve mastered that, try doing it with your eyes closed (but be sure to have support, such as a wall or table nearby — this can be trickier than it sounds). There are also balance mats and other devices on the market that specifically target improving balance.
WATCH: Functional Fitness with The Goodman Group:
Try This Balance Exercise: Sit to Stand
Also called a chair squat, this exercise is simple and easy to do. You can do it every time you sit down, whether to eat, play cards, watch TV, or engage in any other seated activity. Begin by standing in front of your chair, and then sit as you normally would – but before you actually touch the chair or transfer weight to it, stand up again. Repeat several times.
Flexibility exercises stretch muscles and help make them more responsive and limber. They improve ease of movement in all your activities, including reaching for items, dressing, and getting in and out of cars. Combine stretching exercises with strength exercises to help you achieve balanced muscle function. Good activities to try for greater flexibility include yoga and Pilates. There are also many good books and resources on the internet that demonstrate simple stretching exercises you can do without a class or special equipment.
Try This Flexibility Exercise: Climbing Stairs
This one is really good for maintaining flexibility in the hip and knee joints, strengthening your legs, and even building or maintaining cardiac endurance. For most of us, stairs are pretty available and convenient to use. But if that’s not the case for you, take the stairs instead of the elevator the next time you visit the doctor, a friend, or the mall.
As we age, the goal of exercise is to increase or maintain our good health and well-being. We call this “functional fitness" – remaining active while building strength, balance, and cardiovascular health. If you’d like to know more about how seniors can achieve functional fitness, read more about it in our blog here.