A practical guide for seniors who want to maintain a high quality of life
Consider the old adage: "Use it or lose it". This article identifies the "it(s)" and the pertinent exercises to "use" them to effectively improve and maintain your mobility......
It is common knowledge that all of us lose our mobility as we age, especially after about the age of 60. There is an abundance of articles on the subject, e.g. see the link to the NIH Journal below. However, there is scant specific information on mitigating or reversing, to a degree, the process. Note the word "reversing". You may doubt it, but virtually all running records for men over the age of 70 are held by men who took up serious running after age 60. [Orville Rodgers was 100!; Ed Whitlock was 85!; Ed Benham was 87!]. Obviously all "reversed" the aging process.
This article addresses this deficiency with several simple exercises seniors can easily do at home without professional assistance. The strengthening drills described below are recommended for seniors to improve and maintain pertinent muscle strength and stability. Though aimed for seniors, these drills will materially help runners and walkers of all ages.
A noteworthy feature of this program is that it is very effective and efficient time-wise, about 10 minutes per day. That's a little over an hour per week. Contrast that time with using a gym; which, assuming 3 sessions per week, can easily require 6 hours when you include changing clothes, showering, driving and your actual workout time. And, 7 sessions per week is considerably more effective than just 3. The case is made below as to why these drills are actually more effective for strengthening your mobility systems.
We lose muscle strength and neurological effectiveness due to aging. This is due to cellular biological aging and a change in life style. After about 60, we tend to do fewer different types of physical activities which help maintain our strength and reflexes. Walking and running help greatly and are necessary to help maintain mobility; but, are inadequate for minimizing the aging effect. For example, if you run or walk the same speed and distances every week, you'll slow at about 2% per year at 70 and likely about 5% at 80. This can be mitigated greatly by performing the workouts covered below. For a full discussion of this topic see: NIH Journal of Preventive Medicine & Public Health, Promoting Mobility in Older People This is a PDF file that prints well.
It is highly recommended that you review this program with your doctor, and get his/her approval prior to starting the exercises. Everyone is different and it should be expected that some drills may not be suitable or safe for you.
These drills covered in this article address a set of specific drills primarily focusing on the muscle/neurological systems used for mobility and balance, [i.e., running, walking, climbing stairs, etc.] as these are fundamentally necessary to maintain a good quality of life.
Please note, all of these drills can be done without any special gym equipment and thus can be done at your home. You'll need a foam-padded weight-bar [generally about 25lb/women and 35lb/men, works well]; hand barbells [Start with 3lbs/women & 5lbs/men]. Just try the weight-bar and barbells in the store to see if you can easily handle them. And, you'll need a rubber stretch tube [The tube type is better than the band type] assortment. They generally come in a pack of several tensions. And also, you will need an ankle weight. Good ones come with insertable weights, typically 10 x 1lb, so you can choose a weight that's comfortable.
The drills flagged with a "★" are more advanced and should be done with great care. If you've had any surgery or medical conditions that might be affected, get your doctor's approval.
Though most of the photos were taken at a home and just outside, these drills can just as well be done at any gym of your choice.
There are three files formatted especially for printing this article. First is a Printable version of this article's general discussion. The second and third are "Quick Guides", which are intended to be used as handy guides for everyday workouts. The first of these contains just the Drills Portion. And, the second contains just the photos on this page to be used as a guide for your drills. Printable Photos There is lots of white space to make notes about reps and sets, etc. For the photos, you may need to set your printer for the Landscape mode.
- Important Concepts
- Ideally, all appropriate drills should be performed while standing upright on one leg at a time. Humans are not kangaroos, we walk and run with one foot on the ground. [Or fly during the leg swinging stage when running]. You will notice that your stance-leg, the stationary one, and it's hip get a very good workout. This is an isometric muscle contraction, which is a key factor for good balance.
- Balance improvement requires both muscle strength and a responsive nervous system. It in inadequate to have strong muscles if your nervous system doesn't recruit them. Conversely, it's inadequate to have a responsive nervous system if your muscles are too weak to do the job.
- A few words about concentric, isometric and eccentric muscle contractions: Concentric muscles shorten to apply force, isometric muscles statically hold tight, there is no significant movement at the joint. In other words, the joint is static; there is no lengthening or contraction of the muscle fibers and the limbs don't move. Weak isometric hip muscles are a major factor in the lack of good balance, eccentric muscles resist lengthening. For example, the quad eccentric muscles prevent our knees from collapsing when we run or walk, especially downhill.
- Carefully, look at all the drills below; notice the stationary leg on the ground it is getting a good isometric workout, while the muscles in the moving leg are utilizing concentric and eccentric muscles.
- Weak lower-back, isomeric muscles are a major cause of lower back pain. They get very little exercise in our modern life, we sit too much. Note, drills #5, #9 and #15 directly address the issue.
- Avoid drills while seated; typically most equipment at the gym. The machines isolate particular muscle groups, which you do not want. It's nice to have strong hams and quads while seated; but, it's not particularly helpful for everyday life.
- Many of the drills can be incorporated into your everyday life. For example, #6 "Step-ups": Whenever you go up the steps in your house, take two at a time. You can easily get in 20 sets per week this way. For example, #5 "Lower Back": Do this while watching the evening news on TV.
- Do your workouts a minimum of 3 times per week, ideally 7 days a week. There is no basis for the usual 3 times per week or every other day. Probably it's to help gyms manage their facility usage. If everyone showed up 7 days per week they'd need almost twice the space and equipment.
- Smile during all drills. Look like you are having fun.
- You may want to try an important Yoga principle: Every position can be improved as you become more attuned to your body. Do some of your drills in front of a mirror and work on just plain "looking" better and younger. Stand tall, head back with good posture.
- Scheduling Your Workouts
- Consider your Mobility Strengthening exercises to be an integral part of your daily health maintenance routines, e.g., bruising your teeth, bathing, eating, etc.
- Don't use the excuse "Don't have the time...". Your daily total time to do the all the drills [except the walk, sidesteps, fall recovery, and the plank] is a maximum of about 14 minutes. Using 20 reps per leg, adds up to 20reps x 11drills x 2legs x ~2sec = ~14 minutes per day total. That's probably about the same time as brushing your teeth and showering.
- Professionals highly recommend doing your workouts at the same time every day, any suitable time of the day.
- You may find breaking up the daily drills into 2, 3 or even more sessions each day suits your lifestyle best.
- Some folks prefer going to a gym works best for them for their whole daily exercises.
- You may like to do both; some at home and some at the gym. It does not matter; the most important thing is to just do them.
- Important Particulars
- There is no particular order to do the drills; but generally, you'll want to mix upper body and lower body sets.
- The quad and ham drills are best NOT seated; we don't run or walk seated.
- Start your program very easy. Light resistance, 10 reps, 2 sets. As you progress, up the reps each set to 20.
- For the first 10 times doing a particular drill, concentrate on good form: upright and straight, your body and body center of gravity directly over your feet.
- When 20 reps are easy, gradually up the resistance over several weeks and number of sets to 3 or 4.
- Expect some DOMS [Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness] Zero means none.... 5 is very bad. A 1 or 2 is ideal.
- All reps should be: Lift fast [less than 1sec], hold 1 sec, return slowly 4 sec. e.g, count: 1, 1, 4. This is important. Running and walking strongly depend on good eccentric muscle contractions, i.e., the return segment.
- (1) Power Walk/Run: This is perhaps your most important strengthening exercise. Best results are achieved by walking or running fast every day. If you've not been doing serious walking or running, get started. Start your walking/running program slowly and gradually increase your speed and time over a month or two. Your ultimate goal will be 1 to 3 miles. ★ As you progress and feel strong walking or running, start doing 60sec/30sec intervals. Walk or run at about 95% of your max speed for 60 seconds, then go slow for 30 seconds. Everyone starting these drills always asks "how many"? You'll know, trust me. You should be able to do, or work up to, 10. As you progress, increase the 60sec/30sec to 120sec/60sec and the reps to 15 or 20.
- Walk 10 steps backwards. ★ As you progress and feel stronger, increase reverse steps to 20, 30, even more.
- (2) Side-Step: This is a great drill for older folks who are starting to become a bit unstable. Walking and running are essentially done straight ahead; thus the hip adductor and abductor muscles become weak and unresponsive. It is the only drill best done at the gym on a treadmill. However, it can be done outside. Just sidestep widely, leading with your left leg, in one direction for 60sec, then return leading with your right leg, for 60sec. Then turn around and repeat leading with your right leg first, then return leading with the left leg.
- At the gym, side-step on the treadmill 60 seconds; turn around and side-step 60 seconds. You can hold on to the rails to be safe, just don't let your arms help with the work. That's one set. ★ Up the speed and do another set. Again up the speed and do a 3d set. The first time, start with a speed of 1.5mph or slower as needed. A good increase is about 0.5mph. Thus, for sets: 1.5mph, 2.0 mph, and 2.5mph. Important: Spring off of your trailing foot as high and forceful as you can. Just do it on your street.
- (3a) Hip Extension/Glut: At home: Use a rubber stretch-tube. Tie one end to something firm and make a loop to go around your ankle. Pull against the stretch-tube extending your leg behind you as far as possible. Then SLOWLY return your leg to the front. Over time, work up to 20 reps, each leg. You'll need to experiment with finding a tube with a suitable tension for you.
- (3b) Hip Extension/Glut At the gym: Most gyms have a machine similar to the one in the photo. This is a horizontal cable with the pulley close to the floor and the strap on your ankle. Stand far enough from the pulley so your leg is fully extended in front. Pull against the cable extending your leg behind you as far as possible. Then SLOWLY return your leg to the front. Over time, work up to 20 reps, each leg. As you progress, add a heel upward kick as if running.
- (4) Hip Flexion: Tie one end of a stretch-tube to something firm and make a loop to go around your ankle. Start with a leg behind you and pull against the stretch-tube extending your leg in front you as far as possible. Then SLOWLY return your leg to the rear. Over time, work up to 20 reps, each leg.This is the same as the hip extension, just above, except you are standing in the opposite direction.
- (5) Lower Back: This is one of the best ways to strengthen your back. Lock your elbows at 90deg and keep your back as straight as possible. Lift, moderately fast, a weight-bar from knee-high until you are fully upright with the bar at chest level. Slowly return the weight back down to knee-high. Go lower as you progress.★IMPORTANT: Be extra careful your first few times as this can cause serious DOMS [see DOMS above]. Use a very light weight or even no weight. Gradually add weight and reps. Do not use the typical gym's back machine.
- (6) Step-ups, Stair-Steps: This an excellent drill to strengthen your quad and glute muscles. Initially, do one step at a time, about 3 times in succession, or as many as you feel comfortable with. You can lightly hold onto a railing for safety; just don't use your arms to help, let your legs do all the work. ★ Eventually, you may be able to do two steps without holding on to the railing. This will help with balance improvement. Good for stride length, core and, in particular, quad strength. IMPORTANT: Do not use the seated quad machine at the gym; it does little for the auxiliary muscles associated with your quads.
- (7) Sit & Stand: Sit with your arms folded across your chest. Then from the sitting position, stand up and sit-down 5 times as quickly as possible. This is a standard mobility test. Score yourself:>17sec is 1; 14 to 17sec is 2; 11 to 14 is 3, and less than 11 sec is 4. Your goal is to maintain, or work up to, a score of 4.
- (8) Hunch Correction: Hunching is very common for older folks. It can't be stopped; but, the progression can be slowed and the accompanying soreness can be reduced. IMPORTANT: The weights, hands, head, shoulders, butt and heels should all touch the wall. With your arms straight and horizontal, lift the weights quickly up over your head. Then slowly drop them back to the horizontal position. Start with no weight, 3lbs or 5lbs and do 2 or 3 sets of 20 reps each. Don't be concerned if you can't reach full overhead. Just lighten the weights or don't use any, just your hands up. As you get stronger, increase the weights and reps. Also, turn your head far to the right then left for about 1/3 of the reps.
- (9) Diagonal Weigh-Bar Swing: With both feet flat on the floor and standing straight up, rapidly lift your weight-bar diagonally across and in front from near thigh to opposite side high up. Slowly return to starting position. Do about 20 reps. If you have difficulty doing 20 reps, lighten the weight-bar and/or do fewer reps. See the recommendation for the weight-bar weight above.
- (10) Explosive Hams ★: Mostly for runners, but good for walkers also. As we age, our ham fast-twitch concentric muscles become slower. Thus, we shuffle rather than spring off of the trailing foot. This drill helps. Put an ankle weight on one leg, say 5lbs initially and increase as you get stronger. Standing up straight on the other leg, paw the ground backward with the weighted leg, as far as possible. At the end of the swing, kick your heel as hard and fast as possible towards your butt. Work up to 20 reps per leg.
- (11 and 12) Balance: Good balance is a fundamental necessity for good mobility and safety. There is an abundance of techniques for improving one's balance. If this is major issue for you, seek professional help. Otherwise, consider the two basic drills shown below. Virtually all physical therapist use them. ★ If your sense of balance is poor, stand next to something you can lightly hold onto or grab if necessary. The goal is simple: Every week see how much longer you can hold them. If you keep at it, you will be able to greatly exceed the typical times for your age-group.
- (11) Single Leg Balance: It's simple, stand on one leg as long as you can, then the other. ★ As you get better, close your eyes, a few seconds at first, then longer and longer as the weeks go by. Here is a table of standard stance times as a function of age and gender: Use these for guidance only. There are no accepted standards
- Female: Open eyes 60-69: 25sec; 70-79: 11sec; 80-89: 7sec; Closed eyes 60-69: 2.5sec; 70-79: 2.2sec; 80-89: 1.4sec;
- Male__: Open eyes 60-69: 29sec; 70-79: 18sec; 80-89: 6sec; Closed eyes 60-69: 3.1sec; 70-79: 1.9sec; 80-89: 1.3sec;
- (12) Tandem-Stance Balance: Stand with your feet in-line, with the toes of one foot touching the heal of the other, time yourself. Then switch feet and time yourself again. You may find the times differ. Both should be>10sec; hopefully, at least 20sec. The US Gov CDC states: "An older adult who cannot hold the tandem stand for at least 10secs is at increased risk of falling." ★ As you get better, close your eyes, a few seconds at first, then longer and longer as the weeks go by. [Aurtor's note: Haven't found any good data yet, will update ASAP]
- (13) Balance & Core: This is a simple but highly effective way to strengthen your core and leg muscles and improve your sense of balance. Just use your weight-bar and walk around outside or in the house. Carry it in one hand then the other.
- (14) Fall Recovery ★: Recovery from a fall is a major issue for seniors. Thus, it is worthwhile to test yourself occasionally [if you are older than about 70, then once a month or so; over 80 more frequently]; and if improvement is needed, practice until you can safely restore yourself to a standing position. Keep in mind there are two things needed to get up from the floor: Muscle strength AND technique. If you are able to do the other drills in the list with relative ease, then you need to work on your "technique". The photo below shows the most common approach. IMPORTANT Make certain you have someone strong enough to help you get up from the floor when you try to do this drill.
- (15) Plank, Core Strength ★: Make certain you can satisfactorily complete the Fall Recovery drill before attempting this drill. The plank is one of the best core-strength drills. Forearms flat on the floor, your body is straight [like a plank], butt tucked in tight. Hold for 60sec, then lift one limb at a time for 10sec, the lift an arm and the opposite leg for 10sec, then the other pair for 10sec. Start your program holding the positions as long as you can. Work up to the target times and beyond as you get stronger. Also, flip over and support yourself with just your forearms under you and your heels. Hold for 60 seconds.
A special thanks to Patrick Brown for his assistance with the text and photos.
Email with suggestions, questions and general feedback about your experience with the routines
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Revision 23 Feb 2018