Exercise is important for good health at any age, and seniors are no exception. You'll want to talk to a doctor before you start any new exercise regimen, but once you get the all-clear, a low-impact exercise routine can benefit your health by stretching and strengthening your muscles, reducing stress, preventing injury and even helping to lower your blood pressure.
Many gyms offer excellent low-impact exercise classes for seniors, but staying fit doesn't require a gym. Whether you prefer to get your workout from an instructor in a class, on a gym machine or outdoors, you can reap exercise's health benefits and have a little bit of fun at the same time.
Low-impact exercises fall into four categories: endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. Incorporating all four types of exercise into your routine helps reduce the risk of injury and keeps you from getting bored. Instead of doing just one exercise all the time, mix it up! For a well-rounded exercise routine, try combining endurance exercises, like walking or swimming, with exercises that focus on the other categories. You can build strength through light weight training or yoga, for example. Yoga is also a great way to improve flexibility and balance.
Looking for more low-impact exercises to round out your workout? We've got a list to get you started!
Walking is one of the best low-impact endurance exercises. It takes very little planning to get started, and it's easy enough on the joints that many seniors can keep up a walking routine until very late in life. The keys to a beneficial walking routine are the right pair of shoes and some good stretching after your walk.
Look for a pair of walking shoes with good cushioning and heel support, and don't be afraid try on different shoes until you find a pair that feels right. You want to make sure they don't pinch your toes in front or allow your heel to slip out in back. Comfortable shoes will make your walks safer and more enjoyable.
While you're walking, you want to focus on your posture, keeping your back straight and shoulders rolled back. If you're new to walking, start with a short distance and increase your walks by a few minutes each time until you're able to walk for 30- to 60-minute stretches.
After your walk, you'll want to do a few stretches to protect the muscles that you just worked and prevent injury. Do a few stretches for your calves and hamstrings, along with ankle rolls, to help your muscles recover.
Swimming helps improve endurance and flexibility, and it's a very beneficial low-impact exercise for seniors. Because the water relieves stress on your bones and joints, swimming carries a lower risk of injury than many other endurance exercises, and it conditions your whole body as you move through the water. Swimming can even help post-menopausal women avoid bone loss.
When you swim laps in the pool, you're simultaneously stretching and strengthening the muscles in your back, arms, legs and shoulders. Trying out different strokes can help keep your routine fun while also working out different muscle groups.
When you're swimming, it's easy to forget about staying hydrated, but working out in water doesn't mean you can get away with drinking less. Make sure you drink plenty of water before and after swimming laps.
If you don't have access to a neighborhood pool, you can look into joining the local gym or YMCA. New to swimming? You might look into hiring a trainer or swimming coach to get you started with common strokes and some stretches to help you cool down after your workout.
While it might not seem like a low-impact exercise, cycling is actually very easy on the joints since your body absorbs minimal shock from pedaling. You can ride a stationary bike at the gym or invest in a road bike to pedal around your neighborhood. If an upright bicycle is too hard on your back, neck and shoulders, try a recumbent bike instead. Unlike an upright bike, where you're bent over the handlebars, a recumbent bike allows you to sit back with the pedals and handlebars right in front of you. Planning to ride a recumbent bike outdoors? Since this style of bike is much lower to the ground than an upright, it's a good idea to invest in a flag to make you more visible to drivers.
Whether seniors opt to bike inside or outdoors, cycling can improve their health by easing arthritis pain, helping with high blood pressure and improving mood. A recent study even found that cycling reduces the risk of heart attack in people over 60 [source: Government of Western Australia].
Not only is cycling an excellent low-impact exercise, but it can also help you save money and protect the environment. Once you feel like you're getting stronger on your bike, you can try riding on short errands that you'd normally run in your car.
No matter what your workout routine, adding some gentle stretches will improve your flexibility and range of motion. You'll want to do stretches that focus on muscles you're working during the rest of your routine, but some general stretches in the morning and evening can be especially beneficial for seniors, since our muscles tend to lose flexibility as we age.
The National Institute on Aging recommends regularly stretching your neck, shoulders, upper arms, upper body, chest, back, ankles, legs, hips and calves. This might sound like a lot of stretching, but if you do a few stretching exercises each day, you can hit all of these areas fairly quickly.
You want to make sure you're doing stretches properly to avoid injury. Take it slowly, and never push yourself to the point of pain. You just want to feel a gentle pull on your muscle, and focus on taking slow, deep breaths as you hold your stretch.
Many seniors feel that weight training is too strenuous, but certain weight-lifting exercises are actually an excellent low-impact way to build muscle and improve overall health. The key is to start with lighter weights, or even do the moves with no weights, and increase the amount that you're lifting over time as you improve your strength.
You'll want to do 30 minutes of strength training for each muscle group twice a week, taking at least one day off in between working the same group. For example, if you do upper-body exercises on a Monday, you'd want to wait until Wednesday at the earliest before doing upper body again. If you can, take a few sessions with a personal trainer to learn some good upper- and lower-body exercises and get tips on maintaining good form. Once you have the hang of it, you can work out on your own. If a trainer isn't in your budget, check your local library for books or magazines on low-impact weight training exercises for seniors.
Like with stretching or any other exercise, the rule with weight lifting is "no pain is good pain." If an exercise causes you pain, back off and try a lighter weight. If it continues to hurt, stop that particular strength exercise until you can talk to your doctor. It's better to be cautious than to push too hard and risk injury.
Water aerobics combines cardiovascular exercise with strength training for a low-impact, full-body workout. By exercising in water, you take advantage of the water's resistance to strengthen your muscles as you move.
This form of exercise has become the stereotypical senior workout, but with good reason. Like with swimming, the water takes stress off of your joints and allows you to build strength and endurance with very little impact. It's a common misconception that you need to be able to swim to participate in water aerobics classes. Most take place in shallow water -- between waist and chest deep -- so swimming is not a requirement.
You can find water aerobics classes at gyms, the YMCA and community pools. Some cities offer low- and even no-cost water aerobics classes for seniors, making it easy to get started. Check with local community centers or your city's parks and recreation department to see what's offered in your area.
When you picture a yoga class, you probably envision a room full of people contorted into impossible positions that your body would never abide. While there are definitely some intense classes out there, seniors don't need to be left out of yoga's benefits. In fact, yoga fulfills all of the categories of good exercise, combining endurance with stretches, strength training and balance.
More and more gyms are offering senior yoga classes, but if you can't find a class geared toward your age group, a beginner yoga class will do just as well. A good yoga instructor will offer alternative positions to poses that you have trouble with, so don't fret if you can't touch your toes or have trouble getting up and down. There are even some yoga instructors who drop in to senior centers to offer specialized classes.
It's tempting to try to save money by picking up a yoga DVD or following a yoga program on TV, but beginners should invest in at least a few classes before trying yoga alone. An instructor can help make sure you have the proper alignment, which is critical for avoiding injury.
Spending time in the garden is an enjoyable, beneficial way to get in your daily exercise. Digging in the dirt, watering plants, weeding and other gardening activities work your muscles, and you can watch your efforts pay off with beautiful flowers and vegetables along with better health.
If bending and squatting to pull weeds or dig is too much for you, a gardening stool can help make the ground more accessible and help you avoid injuring your back or knees. Choosing the right tools can go a long way, as well. You want tools with a good grip and long handles that help you avoid stooping over when possible. You can also make your garden more accessible by planting in containers, raised beds or on a trellis, so you'll be doing less kneeling on the ground.
Since gardening is generally a warm weather activity, it's very important to drink plenty of water and try to limit your gardening to the cooler times of day: before 10 a.m. or late in the afternoon. You'll also want to dress appropriately, in lightweight clothing, and make sure you wear sunscreen and a hat to protect you from sunburn.
Tai chi is a meditative exercise that flows slowly from pose to pose. Like yoga, tai chi is low impact, and it improves balance, strength and flexibility. It doesn't require any special equipment or clothing, but you'll need to take classes to learn the basics before doing tai chi on your own. Seniors can find classes at gyms, community centers or dedicated tai chi studios.
The focus on breathing helps improve concentration and reduce stress while the slow, flowing movements tone and stretch muscles, making tai chi an excellent low-impact workout. Tai chi's biggest benefit for seniors is probably the improved balance. Balance begins to decline as we age, and good balance helps prevent falls, a major cause of injury and death among seniors.
Since tai chi is gentle on the joints, it's excellent for seniors who are overweight or have knee, hip or ankle pain. The slow movements can gradually improve the strength and flexibility in these problem areas and help seniors maintain a healthy weight.
Golf is more than a fun way to socialize and get outdoors. There are a slew of health benefits for seniors who golf, including increased flexibility and strength. If you've never golfed before, you might take a class to learn the basics. An instructor can help you get off to a good start and reduce the risk of injury by showing you how to swing with the proper form. Golfing for health isn't about having the lowest score: It's about having fun and getting exercise at the same time.
Swinging the club helps build your muscles and improve your range of motion, while walking the course helps with endurance training. If you're not able to walk the whole course initially, just do what you can and gradually add more walking each time you play. If you're golfing with friends, you can take turns driving the cart or walking so you get in some cardiovascular exercise without overdoing it.
It's a good idea to warm up your body before you play a round of golf and to do a few stretches for the hips, calves and upper body afterward to help prevent injury and improve your game.
For more articles on health and exercise, check out the links on the next page.
HowStuffWorks looks at a study showing just one hour of vigorous activity a week can keep seniors mobile and active.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Health Benefits of Water-Based Exercise." April 12, 2010. (May 11, 2011) http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/health_benefits_water_exercise.html#sixteen
- Funkenbusch, Karen and Willard Downs. "Tips and Techniques for The Senior Gardener." University of Missouri Agricultural Engineering Extension. (May 11, 2011) http://agrability.missouri.edu/gardenweb/Senior.html
- Government of Western Australia Department of Transport. "Cycling Fact Sheet No. 23." (May 11, 2011) www.transport.wa.gov.au/cycling_seniors.pdf
- Howarth, Gina. "The health benefits of golf for seniors." Warwick Beacon. June 1, 2007. (May 11, 2011) http://warwickonline.com/view/full_story/1479012/article-The-health-benefits-of-golf-for-seniors
- Kovatch, Sarah et al. "Senior Exercise and Fitness Tips." HelpGuide. March 2010. (May 5, 2011) http://www.helpguide.org/life/senior_fitness_sports.htm
- Lifescript. "The Health Benefits of Swimming." Aug. 2, 2006. (May 11, 2011) http://www.lifescript.com/body/shape/workout/the_endless_health_benefits_of_swimming.aspx
- Mature Fitness. "Safe Exercise Practices." (May 5, 2011) http://www.seniorfitness.net/safe.htm
- Mayo Clinic. "Slide show: Golf stretches for a more fluid swing." April 30, 2011. (May 5, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/golf-stretches/SM00089
- Medline Plus. "Exercise for Seniors." U.S. National Library of Medicine. (May 5, 2011) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/exerciseforseniors.html
- National Institute on Aging. "Exercise and Physical Activity: Getting Fit For Life." National Institutes of Health. May 28, 2010. (May 5, 2011) http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/exercise.htm
- National Institute on Aging. "Exercise & Physical Activity: Your Everyday Guide from the National Institute on Aging." National Institutes of Health. Oct. 20, 2010. (May 5, 2011) http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/ExerciseGuide/
- National Institute on Aging. "Sample Exercises -- Flexibility." Nov. 11, 2009. (May 11, 2011) http://www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation/Publications/ExerciseGuide/04e_flexibility.htm
- Rainwater, Harold L. "Walk Your Way to Fitness." Mature Fitness. (May 5, 2011) http://www.seniorfitness.net/walk.htm
- Sarnataro, Barbara Russi. "Tai Chi Exercises Both Mind and Body." WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. June 23, 2006. (May 11, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/guide/tai-chi-health
- Smith, Michael W. "Hate the Gym? Work Out in Water." MedicineNet. June 25, 2002. (May 11, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=50895
- Weil, Richard. "Walking." MedicineNet. (May 11, 2011) http://www.medicinenet.com/walking/article.htm
- Westcott, Wayne L. "Strength Training Update." Mature Fitness. (May 5, 2011) http://www.seniorfitness.net/strengt2.htm
- Yoga Journal. "Good Old Yoga." May 24, 2010. (May 5, 2011) http://blogs.yogajournal.com/yogabuzz/2010/05/good-old-yoga.html