Medically reviewed by Leann Poston, M.D. on 9/23/20
Our bodies have the amazing ability to adapt to almost anything you throw at it. However, the more overweight you become, or years you accumulate, the harder it may seem to start heading back in the direction of health and fitness. Personal training clients consistently express their fears of having too many pounds or years under their belt to lift weights, stay active, and generally improve their health by exercising. This fear is almost always unfounded. No matter where you currently are physically, you can do something in the gym to make your body stronger and your life easier. Where you start can and should be incredibly individual. If at all possible, your training plan should be fully customized by a qualified, experienced trainer. Exercise for older adults is even more important.
That being said, personal training can be incredibly expensive, and there is no guarantee that the trainer at your local gym will have any idea what they are doing, especially when training advanced age and overweight clients. Many trainers simply follow the same general plan for all clients because it’s what they know and is comfortable with. These two special populations are not entirely different from the general public, but some considerations must be taken into account when developing a training plan for them.
If you are looking to shed some extra pounds or to keep your ability to remain active as you age, the primary guideline is that training should mimic and develop fundamental human movements that you are likely to be performing every day. Squatting, pressing things overhead, standing up and sitting down, pressing something in front of you, carrying awkward objects, picking things up off the ground, pulling something, and walking are typical movement patterns that you have probably already performed at some point today. This means if you strengthen your ability to perform these actions with exercise for older adults in the weight room, it will be much less straining to do them outside the gym – where you spend the vast majority of your time.
You are presumably not a professional bodybuilder, so you don’t really need to be doing the same kind of workouts as those looking to sculpt their body like a Greek statue. Performing movement patterns that you utilize regularly also has the added bonus of being more effective for strength gain and weight loss. Bicep curls, cable machines, leg extensions, and all the countless other isolation (single joint) exercises and tools do have their place. However, they will never replace movements like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, and many more that utilize multiple muscle groups, joints and call upon the entire body to stabilize. This is exactly how your body will execute movements and accomplish daily life tasks, so why not practice them in the gym while working your way to health and fitness?
If you will be investing your time in the gym, it should be worth it, or you will never stick with it. Below are seven exercises for older adults that should make up a majority of your training. These have been chosen because they are scalable (can be adjusted for skill level), and for the reasons detailed after each. Practice these exercises and get good at them. No matter if you are just trying to gain some strength or lose those extra pounds, the plan is mostly the same: lift weights, work as hard as you can, stay consistent, and eat according to your goals. As you add lean body mass (muscle), your health will improve on almost every level. Daily tasks won’t seem so difficult, weight (fat) loss will become increasingly easier, and countless other physiological benefits will manifest. In fact, medical professionals consider the ratio of lean to fat mass as a new vital sign because it has shown to be predictive of positive health outcomes from issues ranging from surgery to infection.¹ Simply put, to a reasonable extent, the more muscle you have, the more healthy you are likely to be.
Everyone sits down and stands up quite a few times every day. Yet, as we get older or heavier, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so. Compensatory mechanisms kick in, and we find ways to get up and down, albeit with less and less efficiency. This inability to sit down or stand up from a seated position can really limit freedom, especially when coupled with back or hip pain, which is extremely common in older or overweight populations.
A box squat is an amazingly simple but effective exercise for older adults. All you will need is a box of some sort (a chair or bench will work) and your body. Stand in front of the box like you would if you were sitting down in a chair. Then squat down slowly until you are sitting completely, and stand back up. Box squats help develop confidence and the ability to do a squat without the aid of a box eventually. Start with as tall of a box as you need in order to complete the repetitions. As you get better at it, use a lower and lower box until you can do a complete bodyweight squat with no help at all.
Pressing things overhead is a fairly common demand of daily life. Reaching overhead and placing items on shelves both require relative strength and stability. This is an incredibly easy movement pattern to master, but your ability to press overhead may be limited by shoulder flexibility/mobility.
To perform the dumbbell overhead press, you will need a pair of dumbbells. Start as light as you feel comfortable with but don’t be afraid to progress as you get stronger and more stable. With a dumbbell in each hand, bring them up to a comfortable position at your shoulders. They should feel relatively stable and strong in this position. From here, press them straight overhead until your arms are fully locked out. If they are coming forward and feel like they are going to tip you over, work on your shoulder mobility in order to get them directly above your head at the top of each repetition. As opposed to overhead press with a barbell, utilizing dumbbells allows for a greater stimulus of instability. While that may sound like a bad thing, just remember that life is unstable. By training your ability to control not only your body but also weights, you lessen your chances of becoming injured doing daily activities. So this is even more important with exercise for older adults.
Pushups are one of the most straightforward exercises you can imagine, no pun intended. Becoming efficient at pushing yourself off of the ground is crucial to retaining freedom and security as you age. As with all exercises on this list, pushups are a compound movement, meaning they involve multiple joints and muscles. There is an infinite number of progressions/regressions you can apply to pushups in order to make them easier or harder according to your skill level.
Start with the easiest variation, a box pushup. Utilizing the same kind of box, bench, or chair that you used for box squats, grab it with both hands and walk your feet back until you support your weight with your arms. From there, bend your elbows and lower your chest to the box. Once your chest is touching, press away from the box until your arms are fully locked out. Pushup complete! Repeat for as many repetitions as possible until you can no longer perform them with good form. Once this variation is too easy, you can use a lower and lower box, or simply perform the exercise on the ground.
To ease into doing full pushups from the ground, keep your knees in contact with the floor while you press away with your arms. This will reduce the resistance by roughly 50%. One final tip that has helped many people perform more effective pushups is to start the movement by lying on your stomach. Once on your stomach, pinch your shoulder blades together and bring your hands off the ground in order to bring your shoulders back. This ensures that when you press after lowering your hands back down, you do so with your chest muscles and not your shoulders. This helps to reduce the likelihood of injury with exercise for older adults.
Rowing is arguably the best exercise to build back strength. It also has the added benefit of utilizing many large muscles, which in turn use up a lot of calories, helping with the creation of a calorie deficit and weight loss. The muscles of the back are very important for the overall strength and stability of our spine. Pulling or rowing is a fundamental human movement that we utilize to some extent every single day, making it a great exercise for older adults.
Perhaps the easiest row variation would be a seated cable row, although most rowing exercises are generally well tolerated by people of all ages and skill levels. Rowing is one movement that can be performed on a machine with little or no benefit being taken away. Some machines will allow for some instability in order to better replicate how the real world is. Suspension rows, dumbbell bent-over rows, and barbell bent-over rows are all good options to begin training your rowing/pulling ability. Remember to use a full range of motion. This means locking your arms out straight and pulling back until you have reached the end of your range.
Carrying things is as common of an activity as you could find, so you might as well incorporate carries into your training and get better at them. There is nearly an unlimited amount of variation you can incorporate with carry-type movements, so rest assured they will never get old. Carrying a kettlebell or dumbbell in each hand allows you to build your work capacity (ability to work and work and work…) while mimicking something you likely have to do every day. Throw a weight in one hand only and try to walk as normally as possible for an excellent trunk and hip stability exercise.
Basically, there is no way to go wrong with carries. It makes for a great exercise for older adults. Pick up a weight, and carry it for as long as you possibly can. Carries develop stability and strength throughout your entire body and are a great way to burn calories as well. One final benefit of this kind of exercise is their excellence at developing grip strength. A recent study showed that grip strength is an excellent predictor of all-cause mortality.² This means that researchers were able to predict a subject’s likelihood to die of anything other than old age just by analyzing the grip strength in their hands. Grip strength is an excellent measure for vitality, so do some carries!
Deadlifts truly are the ultimate measure of strength. Picking up as much weight as possible from the ground just resonates with us on a deep level. That being said, traditional barbell deadlifts are notorious for causing injuries, which is the last thing you need if you are working your way to fitness. So how do we get the benefits of deadlifts while avoiding the extremely unfavorable risk to benefit ratio that plagues barbell deadlifts? With an exercise called kettlebell suitcase deadlifts.
Suitcase deadlifts were given that name because it looks like you are picking up two big suitcases. For this movement, grab a couple of kettlebells and place them outside of your feet. From there, lower yourself down into a squat position until you can grab the handles of both kettlebells. Once you have them both in hand, stand back up, bringing them both with you. Repeat for as many repetitions as you safely can. If you need to place the kettlebells on small boxes in order to shorten the distance you must move them. This exercise will do wonders for improving the quality of your everyday life. Practice this exercise will make picking items off the floor much easier and, therefore, far less dangerous.
Walking is probably the most underrated form of exercise in modern times. Ask anyone trying to lose weight or remain healthy as they age, and they will say the key is to perform rigorous cardiovascular activity. The government even recommends aerobic activity be performed multiple times per week (this suggestion will be changed to resistance training soon, just wait!). If the key to weight loss is cardio, then why are there always those people at the gym who do cardio every single day and not lose weight? It’s because, in reality, weight loss is predicated on one thing: creating a calorie deficit. And guess what, you don’t need to do cardio to do it!
Walking is a perfectly acceptable way to strengthen your cardiovascular system, and it is great for helping you lose weight or maintain it. It also helps you regulate blood sugar levels, especially if done right after eating a meal. Not to mention that walking can be incredibly relaxing, unlike working away on an elliptical or treadmill. Walk as much as possible and utilize a step tracker if you need it as tracking steps is a great way to manage activity levels each day.
Exercise for older adults doesn’t need to mean living on machines and cardio equipment and not having any fun at all in the gym. Analyze what your weak points are or your demands of daily life that you are struggling with. Once you have identified what you need to work on, you can develop a plan utilizing these exercises and many more to help improve your quality of life.
These seven exercises for older adults are a great place to start getting stronger at any skill level. Once you have gotten stronger, you can begin to work towards whatever specific goals you may have. If you need to seek guidance from an experienced personal trainer at your local gym, use caution, however, as trainers are humans just like any of us and are prone to error. No matter your current physical state, there is a way for you to start making progress today. There are also online doctors’ offices like Invigor Medical that can prescribe anti-aging medications that can benefit you too.
While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.
¹ Prada, Carla, et al. “Implications of low muscle mass across the continuum of care: a narrative review.” Annals of Medicine. Volume 50, 2018 – Issue 8.
² Y, Wu, et al. “Association of Grip Strength With Risk of All-Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Diseases, and Cancer in Community-Dwelling Populations: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies.” J Am Med Dir Assoc. 2017 Jun 1, 18 doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2017.03.011.