You already know that exercise is essential for any age, but especially in your senior years.
But what you might not know is that specific exercises benefit you in your everyday activities, like getting out of bed. What you used to do might not be so easy to enjoy, even the little things you take for granted. Below, you’ll learn about a particular type of exercise made especially to combat the mobility difficulties related to aging.
Please click the button below to download a free PDF of the exercises in this article:
Keep in Mind:
Before starting any new exercise(s), we strongly recommend you follow the advice of the National Institute on Aging and consult your doctor.
What are Functional Exercises for Seniors?
More than just exercising for your health, functional exercises deal with any necessary movement to safely perform your daily activities. These movements are tied to your level of flexibility, balance, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance and allow you to stay independent longer. If continuing to do things like getting out of bed, getting up and down from the toilet, or lifting groceries out of your trunk, functional exercises become important as you age.
To get the ultimate benefits from functional exercises, The National Institutes of Health suggests functional exercises that support four main fitness goals: balance, flexibility, strength, and endurance.
What are the Benefits of Functional Exercises for Seniors?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 61% of adults over the age of 65 are limited in their ability to perform basic actions. Things like being able to bend down to grab something off the floor or pull a gallon of milk out of the fridge can become more difficult as you age. And the less you move your body, the more difficult these everyday tasks will become. Issues such as joint dysfunction, degenerative joint disease, and other injuries that can show up from lack of use can begin to present themselves.
Regular exercises you do at the gym often involve specific muscle groups, so it’s important to include exercises that will target several at a time. That’s how functional exercises work. Functional exercises are best done daily and help improve your strength and ability to engage in daily activities.
Other benefits of functional exercises include:
- Improved endurance
- Added muscle strength
- Greater muscle memory
- Improved flexibility
- Better coordination
- Lower impact to the body
- Increased independence
- Targets several muscle groups at a time
- Reduced risk of falls
Best Functional Exercises for Seniors
You likely already do many things that are considered functional exercises, but knowing a few made especially for this purpose is also helpful.
Functional core exercises for seniors
Since your core is the center of your body and involved in pretty much all movements your body engages in, these exercises are critical for maintaining your mobility as you age. Your core is more than just your stomach. It includes all the muscles that surround your rib cage, spine, hips, and butt. When a given step says to ‘engage your core,’ it means imaging you’re about to receive a punch in the gut, then squeezing your glutes and pushing down through your feet to gain stability.
1. Dead Bug
This exercise helps strengthen your core, improve your posture, and ease pain in your lower back.
- 1Lie on your back, extending your hands above you toward the ceiling.
- 2Lift your feet in the air and bend your knees 90 degrees.
- 3Relax your ribcage and lift your pelvis so that your back is flat on the floor.
- 4As you exhale, straighten your knee, flex your quads, and drop your hips until your left leg falls to 3″ away from the floor.
- 5As your leg drops, your right arm should extend over your head. Make sure your core stays engaged and hold for one count.
- 6Inhale, keep your core engaged, and return your arm and leg to their starting position.
- 7Repeat steps 4 through 6 with your alternate arm and leg. Do 10-20 reps.
2. Tummy Twists
- 1Start by sitting upright in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
- 2Hold a ball with your hands close to your stomach and elbows slightly bent.
- 3Slowly rotate your torso to the left while keeping your body stable.
- 4Return to the center and then repeat to the right.
- 5Do this until you finish 10 twists per side.
Functional strength exercises for seniors
Strength building exercises help you build endurance to do the tasks that require strength in your arms and legs.
3. Stair Climbs
If you have stairs, this exercise is for you. It also helps with safely navigating curbs.
- 1Stand in front of a stair or elevated platform. Use a rail for safety if needed.
- 2Place your right foot on the step.
- 3Using your leg muscles, make a controlled step-up motion without relying on the railing or hopping.
- 4Step back down to the starting point.
- 5Repeat with your left leg. Alternate legs for 10 reps.
4. Chair Squats
Squats are one of the best exercises for maintaining the strength to do everyday activities, like getting up from the couch, chair, or toilet. In the video below, you’ll see additional ways to modify the chair squat as well.
- 1Stand in front of a sturdy chair with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- 2Slowly lower yourself into the chair by bending your knees and leaning forward at the waist. If you need your arms out for balance, that is okay.
- 3Return to standing by leaning forward, squeezing the glutes, and pushing through the heels.
- 4Repeat for a total of 10 squats.
5. Wall Push-Ups
Wall push-ups are easier on your shoulders but work just as well for building strength. They help with tasks such as opening a heavy door or recovering from a fall.
- 1Stand 2-3 feet in front of a wall.
- 2With your arms shoulder-width apart, reach out and place your hands chest-high on the wall.
- 3Slowly bend your elbows and lower your chest to the wall.
- 4Use your arms to push yourself back to a starting position.
- 5Repeat to complete 10 reps.
6. Dumbbell Row
Practicing rows strengthens your upper body to help with daily tasks such as picking up a laundry basket or starting a lawnmower.
- 1Hold a light to medium weight object in one hand.
- 2Lean forward onto a table or countertop with your opposite arm for support.
- 3As you squeeze your shoulder blade, pull the dumbbell back until your elbow is parallel with your body.
- 4Slowly lower the dumbbell back down. Repeat 9 times and then switch arms.
Full-body functional exercises for seniors
Because you rarely move in a straight line during your daily activities, you need to participate in full-body exercises to ensure activities like raking, sweeping, and vacuuming don’t become even bigger chores.
7. Farmer’s Carry
This exercise can help with just about any daily task because it works your core, arms, and legs and helps with posture and endurance.
- 1Stand up straight and hold a light object (dumbbell, soup can) in each hand.
- 2Keeping your shoulders relaxed, tighten your abdominal muscles.
- 3Paying attention to your posture and balance, begin slowly walking forward.
- 4Repeat five times in a 30-second walk, 5-second rest pattern.
8. Multi-Directional Lunge
There are many ways to do a multi-directional lunge, but this 3-directional lunge is best for seniors.
- 1Stand on a firm surface with feet shoulder-width apart.
- 2Step forward with your right foot as you slowly bend both knees and lower your body weight.
- 3Return to start.
- 4Step backward with your right foot as you slowly bend both knees and lower your body weight.
- 5Return to start.
- 6Now step to the side with your right foot and do a semi-squat with both legs.
- 7Return to start. This is a full lunge. Repeat a few times with the first leg and then switch to the left leg.
9. Wobbly Bridge
To get a full-body exercise that also helps the hips, try this.
- 1Sit on the floor with your hands flat on the ground below your shoulders, knees bent, and feet flat on the ground.
- 2With your arms straight, use your legs to push your hips up to the ceiling until you make a flat table with your torso.
- 3Lift your right arm up toward the ceiling as you rotate your upper body so that your left arm is supporting it and your hips stay lifted.
- 4Go back to your starting position except don’t let your hips touch the floor all the way.
- 5Repeat with your left arm. Then, do again for 10 reps.
Functional mobility exercises for seniors
When you practice tasks that you would do daily, you’re doing a mobility exercise.
10. Hop Step
When you suddenly need to stop or avoid something, you’re hopping.
- 1Stand on your left leg and hold for 3-5 seconds until steady.
- 2Hop to your right leg.
- 3Get your balance for 3-5 seconds.
- 4Repeat by starting from the other foot; this is one rep.
- 5Do this for 10 reps.
11. Single-Leg Stand
Many tasks require balancing on one leg, such as getting in and out of your car or stepping out of the shower.
- 1Stand with both feet together.
- 2Tighten your core muscles.
- 3Lift one foot off the ground, as much as 6″ up, for at least 30 seconds. Imagine a string is holding you up by the head through the spine.
- 4Lower your foot and repeat with the other leg. Do this 10 times.
12. Heel to Toe
Doctors often use this task to judge your balance.
- 1Stand with your feet together.
- 2Tighten your core muscles.
- 3Step one foot in front of the other, where your heel is directly in front of the other foot’s toes like you’re walking on a tightrope.
- 4Hold the position for 30 seconds.
- 5Repeat with the other foot.
A Note About Functional Exercises for Frail Seniors
If you are struggling to complete any of the exercises above due to existing mobility issues but still want to improve upon the independence you do have, then you can still benefit from functional exercises. In your case, you will be training your body back to independence by utilizing functional exercises in a modified way.
Jennifer Green, MS shared with the National Center on Health, Physical Activity, and Disability (NCHPAD) that seniors should choose exercises that work the large muscle groups and provide functional benefits. These include walking, swimming, and chair exercises. She further shares that any strength exercises should be modified to remove the use of weights.
She lists specific activities that are geared toward neuromuscular activities that increase gait, coordination, flexibility, and balance, prevents falls, and increases hand-eye coordination and reaction times. These include:
- Stair climbing with a rail for support for building leg strength
- One-foot stand with a chair for support for increasing balance
- Chair sit-to-stand activities for independent toileting and movement
- Fall and recovery techniques for getting up and down off the floor
Start Today to Ensure Your Independence As You Age
As you can see, these functional exercises are perfect for building up your strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance – all essential components of ensuring you are your best, most independent self as you age. As always, be sure to consult your doctor before trying any new exercises, and if something is too hard, be sure to modify it to fit your needs. Here’s to your independence and mobility!
Supporting Scientific Studies
- 1Training to Reduce Postural Sway and Increase Functional Reach in the Elderly
- 2Functional sit-to-stands evoke greater neuromuscular activation than orthopaedic bed exercises in healthy older adults
- 3Fighting muscle weakness in advanced aging by takehome strategies: Safe anti-aging full-body in-bed gym and functional electrical stimulation (FES) for mobility compromised elderly people
- 4Elastic Band Exercises Improved Activities of Daily Living and Functional Fitness of Wheelchair-bound Older Adults with Cognitive Impairment. A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial.
- 5An elastic band exercise program for older adults using wheelchairs in Taiwan nursing homes: A cluster randomized trial
- 6Feasible modalities and long-term effects of elastic band exercises in nursing home older adults in wheelchairs: A cluster randomized controlled trial
- 7The Effect of 6 Months Training on Leg Power, Balance, and Functional Mobility of Independently Living Adults Over 70 Years Old
- 8A Controlled Trial of Exercise by Residents of Old People’s Homes
- 9Exercise for improving balance in older people
- 10Impact of two hydrogymnastics class methodologies on the functional capacity and flexibility of elderly women