My Great Uncle Bud used to always say, “It’s hell to get old.” He griped incessantly about his loss of strength, poor balance, and frequent trips to the hospital from falls. Yet his experience, that of an elderly person in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, was far different from today’s seniors. We know now that a body can be rebuilt at any age, and that most of the physical problems seniors experience are the result of inactivity.
Why does the body break down during inactivity? It’s a process known as the Use-Disuse Principle. In a nutshell, it means that the body will only hold onto the parts of itself that are frequently used. If a certain muscle group isn’t used for a long time, the body will discard those muscles to use the energy that would have been consumed by them elsewhere. So the cliché “Use it or lose it” is ultimately true.
Over the years, I have worked with a number of seniors who began a fitness journey at their doctor’s recommendation. Most had never exercised a day in their life, and preliminary fitness tests revealed severe muscular deficiencies. The majority could not easily perform simple movements such as sitting and standing. In light of this, most of the traditional gym equipment was off-limits until these older adults could regain some basic strength and stability. To help them get started, I created three at-home exercises to include in their daily routines.
The following three very basic exercises are designed to help seniors who have never participated in fitness programs, or who haven’t exercised in a while, to improve the strength and balance in their legs, core, and shoulders before using a gym. If the following exercises are performed every day for about a month, the risk of injury and overtraining when starting a more intense fitness routine—such as one designed by a personal trainer—will fall substantially. None of these exercises require any extra equipment.
The Toothbrush Challenge
Dentists recommend brushing your teeth twice a day for two minutes each session. This amounts to four minutes of nothing other than standing in front of a mirror and staring at ourselves. The Toothbrush Challenge makes use of this time to do a very basic strength and balance exercise that can help restore a senior’s stability fairly quickly.
While brushing your teeth, set a timer for one minute. During that minute stand only on one leg, with the knee slightly flexed (DO NOT LOCK OUT THE KNEE), and hold that position. Be sure to perform this exercise in a place where you can catch yourself in case you lose your balance. Once the first minute is up, set the timer again and repeat the exercise with the other leg.
The first few times you perform this exercise, you probably won’t last the entire minute. What’s important is that you try to keep balancing until the end of the minute. If your other foot touches the ground, reset and keep holding. Do this exercise every time you brush your teeth. After the first week, you should feel a marked improvement in your ability to balance and hold yourself on one leg. After one month, your legs will be far stronger and stable, and from there you can attempt other exercises at a gym.
The Textbook Toss-up
Shoulder injuries are a common complaint among seniors. The slightest tweak from overreaching for something in the back of the cupboard, or even from sleeping in an awkward position, can drastically hinder your quality of life. Weak shoulders are also prone to injury when exercising at a gym, so it’s a good idea to strengthen those muscles in a low-risk manner. The Text Book Toss-up is a great way to accomplish this.
Set a timer for one minute. Using a book about the size of a standard bible, grasp the sides firmly with both hands and extend your arms straight out ahead of you. Without bending your elbows, slowly lift the book above your head until you reach 90 degrees, then return to the starting position. Once returned to the starting position, bend your elbows and slowly bring the book to your chest. From there, extend back out to the starting position. Without dropping the book, repeat these two movements in sequence until the timer runs out.
The first few times you do this, you’ll feel a deep burn in your shoulders. Only perform three repetitions of the exercise at first and see how you feel the next day. Over time, assuming you do this every day, you should grow strong enough to begin setting the timer to two or even three minutes. If you’re really feeling strong, swap out a book for something heavier, like an encyclopedia, textbook, or atlas.
The Restless Leg (Abs Workout)
The abdominal muscles are crucial to good balance. As such, it’s important to strengthen them, but many seniors may struggle with traditional floor exercises such as ab crunches. To solve this problem, I created the Restless Leg Abs Workout. It’s designed to allow seniors to strengthen their abs and legs in a single movement, all from the comfort of their own bed.
Lying in bed, place your hands underneath the small of your back and stretch your legs out as straight as possible. Make a mental note to flex (or suck in) your stomach muscles and hold them that way. Raise one leg up without bending the knee and hold it for one minute in that position. At the end of the minute, reset the timer and repeat with the other leg. Do this three times with each leg.
The key to this exercise is to keep the stomach muscles engaged throughout. This means keeping your stomach sucked in while holding one leg off the bed. Again, over time this will become easier for you, and as you improve you may move on to more challenging and strenuous exercises.
Christophe Adrien, also known as The Viking Trainer, is a Certified Fitness Trainer (CFT) and Certified Specialist in Fitness Nutrition (SFN) with a Master’s Degree from Oregon State University. He is a lifelong health and fitness enthusiast who regularly contributes to publications such as 1-800-HOMECARE™, 1-800-HOSPICE™ and Baby Boomer Cafe, among others.