Health & Fitness

11 easy and effective at-home exercises for older adults

Stay limber and strong for longer with these simple moves.

Credit: Getty Images / Nastasic

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My favorite thing about working with older adults, as a personal trainer and author of Fitness Hacks for Over 50, is also my favorite thing about working out at home: It’s all about function—that is, exercises that don’t don’t feel too different from everyday movements—and getting the most out of every moment.

After all, as the decades progress, people tend to give higher priority to the things that really matter. They care how exercise and physical activity can improve their quality of life. They want to pick up, carry, and play with grandkids. They want to take stairs without getting winded. And they want to get off of the couch with little-to-no grunting required.

Plus, when working out at home as most of us now are doing, people are able to take the focus on function to a whole new level—that is, literally training for everyday life. To get in more movement, a good goal is to perform at least three of the below exercises every day. The exact number of reps and sets is fluid—the most important thing is to feel the effort.

These exercises can be done without special equipment or with objects around the house. (You won't need to design a home gym, though I certainly won't discourage it).

1. Get up and down to stay limber longer

yoga
Credit: Getty Images / RealPeopleGroup

A soft, non-slip mat is essential for this exercise.

Research consistently links one’s ability to lower down onto the floor—and then get back up—with overall health and longevity. It’s also a movement pattern that’s surprisingly easy to lose if you don’t do it regularly. (And who wants to get stuck down when goofing around with grandchildren?)

Instructions: Sit down on the floor and get back up in as many different ways as possible. Get creative! Roll onto your stomach, get on all fours, rock on your tailbone, cross your ankles underneath you, do a little jump—the options are endless.

Gear recommendation: A thick exercise mat makes this drill infinitely more comfortable. Our favorite yoga mat, from Lululemon, is thicker than most yoga-exclusive mats and has excellent sticking properties to prevent slipping while doing exercises. For an even softer surface, we also love the Amazon Basics Extra Thick Exercise Mat, which is made of a cushy non-slip surface that protects joints from the hard ground during any kind of exercise.

2. Do deadlifts to improve lower-body strength

deadlift
Credit: Getty Images / Extreme-Photogra[her / Proform

A kettlebell is a great add-on to a deadlift.

Arguably the most functional exercise anyone can do, the deadlift is as simple as picking a weight up off of the floor, which helps boost strength, especially in the legs, glutes, and core. It can also go a long way toward nixing lower-back pain because it trains you to stabilize your core while you lift with your legs, not your back.

Instructions: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and a weighted object on the floor between the balls of your feet. Brace your core and, while keeping your back flat, push your hips back behind you to lower your outstretched hands to the object. Your knees should only slightly bend. Keeping a firm back, drive through your feet to raise to standing with the object hanging in front of you at arms’ length. Slowly reverse the motion to lower the weight, and repeat.

Gear recommendation: You can perform this exercise around the house with anything you want or need to pick up (boxes, laundry detergent, furniture, a book-filled bag), but if you’re interested in weights, I love deadlifting with a single kettlebell. The bell props the handle up off of the floor so it’s easy to grab. This 5-, 10-, and 15-pound set from Proform is a great option for different exercises and strength levels.

Get the Proform 5-, 10-, and 15-pound kettlebell set from Kohl's for $49.99

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3. Carry suitcases for better core and grip strength

The suitcase-carry exercise is a perfect example of how everyday moves have amazing impacts on health. Here, simply walking with a heavy weight in one hand down at your side builds phenomenal core and grip strength. And, of course, it primes the body for actually carrying luggage, once the world can start traveling again.

Instructions: Stand next to an object that’s heavy but you know you can grasp—a briefcase or small suitcase loaded with a couple of books works great for this. Squat down to grab it with one hand, then stand up so that it hangs at your side. Keep your shoulders square and core braced, and don’t let your body lean into or away from the weight. Walk forward at least a few paces (down the hall or across a room), lower the weight back to the floor, then switch hands and walk back to where you started.

Gear recommendation: I also like kettlebells for this exercise. (So rest assured that, if you buy one, you’ll get plenty of use out of it.) Their weight distribution makes them easier to hold onto compared with dumbbells.

4. Work shoulders safely for strength and mobility

weight
Credit: Getty Images / shapecharge / CAP

Lifting with light weights can help improve your posture and shoulder strength.

Though considered among the most “functional” exercises in terms of building upper-body strength, shoulder presses (when you hold a weight at shoulder level and press hands up overhead) far too often aggravate the rotator cuffs, especially in adults who have had their share of joint wear-and-tear or are lacking some shoulder mobility. Scaption is a more controlled movement that keeps the rotator cuff neutral and therefore safer from the risk of injury. The movement is performed similarly to front raises, when you lift weights with straight arms from your sides out in front of you, but at a more comfortable angle from the body.

Instructions: Hold a light weight in each hand down by your sides. Keeping a tall, braced torso, raise straight arms diagonally in front of you to shoulder height, keeping your hands thumb-up toward the ceiling. Resist the urge to lean your shoulders or arch your back for leverage. Pause, then slowly lower both weights, and repeat.

Gear recommendation: Hex rubber dumbbells like those from Cap Barbell are great for performing this exercise and a bunch of others, making them a solid investment. People of all ages are consistently shocked how light they have to go with weights here. Start with 2.5 to 5 pounds and increase from there. For an easy-grip option, try Stott Pilates' 2.75-pound mini hand weights. They have a foam cover and adjustable straps that wrap the back of the hand, which make them simple to hold in the palm.

5. Try this around-the-clock exercise to keep your balance

Standing on one leg for short periods of time can go a long way in improving a sense of balance and even preventing painful falls. This exercise in particular helps work on stability while feeling in control.

Instructions: Stand on your left foot with your knee slightly bent to help you maintain balance. Pretend you're standing in the center of a clock, facing 12, and lift your left foot off the ground. Slowly move your suspended foot in front of you to 12, then out to the side to 9, then behind you to 6. Try to do it without touching the left foot down. Reverse the movement to bring your feet together. Do all your planned reps on that side, then repeat on the opposite leg.

Gear recommendation: For your first few tries, you won't need anything. Once you can do it consistently with a long straight moving leg, increase the challenge by adding a mini looped resistance band around your thighs, just above your knees.

Get Perform Better Exercise Mini Bands from Amazon for $17.95

6. Have a seat then get to your feet to make getting up and down easier

squat
Credit: Getty Images / RobertoDavid

Sitting and standing is a great balance maneuver—and a bench makes a great surface to do it.

The problem with sitting too much, which we all do, is that the muscles used for getting up weaken over time. This exercise is all about reversing that process to keep the body strong and independent, by working the lower body’s biggest muscles.

Instructions: Stand in front of a chair, couch, or bench with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart. Brace your core. Squat down to tap your tush to the chair—without relaxing your weight onto the seat. Pause, then drive through your legs to return to stand— without using your hands or rocking on your feet for momentum.

Gear recommendation: A padded dining chair or bench works great for this, but it’s best to have a surface that isn’t too soft or too hard, so you don’t sink into it or get a bruise if you sit too quickly. When outfitting a home gym, consider a traditional lightly padded exercise bench, like the Bowflex SelectTech Adjustable 5.1S bench. It tucks up nicely into a closet or corner when you’re not using it and provides support for sit and stands and other exercises. When the exercise becomes easy, try doing it while holding a dumbbell against your chest with both hands.

Get the SelectTech Adjustable 5.1S Stowable Bench from Bowflex for $329

7. Modify push-ups to build chest and core strength

pushup
Credit: Getty Images / vm

A pushup on an elevated surface like a bench can improve chest and core strength without too much strain.

Pushing is one of the body’s fundamental movement patterns. This exercise trains it, while also improving core strength and stability more efficiently than modifying pushups by doing then with the knees down.

Instructions: Stand facing a kitchen counter, desk, sturdy coffee table, or bench and place your hands on its edge, a little more than shoulder-width apart. Step your feet behind you with your arms straight, so you’re in the top-of-a-push-up plank position, but with your hands elevated off the ground. Brace your core by pulling your belly button toward your spine and pull your shoulder blades down and away from your ears. Bend your elbows to lower your chest between your hands. Focus on holding your upper arms diagonally from your body (no wide flaring elbows) to reduce stress to your shoulder joints. Pause, then press through your hands to raise your body and repeat.

Gear recommendation: You don’t need any piece of equipment here. If you’re new to push-ups, a kitchen counter may be the ideal starting height for you. That said, if you already invested in that exercise bench, it’s a great platform for your hands, albeit lower to the ground and therefore more challenging.

8. Use a little resistance to strengthen back muscles

resistancebands
Credit: Getty Images / EmirMemedovski / Rogue

You don't need to hit the gym to do this effective exercise with resistance bands.

Your back muscles are some of the most important ones to consistently train, as years of sitting hunched over a desk can wreak havoc on posture, cause neck, back, and shoulder pain, and even increase the risk of compression fractures and that dreaded “hunchback.” Some simple back-strengthening exercises can help reverse the damage.

Instructions: An added challenge to training back muscles at home is that it’s pretty hard to create a pulling action without something to pull against. For this exercise, you’ll need a resistance band. Hold it in both hands in front of your shoulders, arms fully extended and band straight. Brace your core. Pinch your shoulder blades together to bring your arms out to both sides until the band is stretched to match your arm span. Keep your elbows fixed straight the entire time, and focus on not leaning back or rocking for momentum. All movement should come from your shoulders.

Gear recommendation: Rogue's Monster Bands are my go-to for well-made resistance bands that keep their tension over time and shouldn’t fray or break. Start with a lighter band—which, for Rogue, is the orange or red color—with the possibility of working your way up to a heavier-duty blue or green band.

Shop Rogue Monster Bands starting at $16

9. Do core exercises that won’t wreak havoc on your back

There are a lot of dedicated core exercises out there, but this hollow body tuck is wonderful because, unlike most moves, it won’t use or strain the wrong muscles (like the lower back) and you can’t cheat it. The lying-down position also means the back has more support, which can help lessen tweaks.

Instructions: Lie on your back on the floor and hug your knees to your chest with your shoulders raised just off of the floor. Contract your core to press your lower back firmly into the floor. Slowly let go of your knees and extend your arms toward your toes—your knees will still be pulled in, which should prevent your lower back from arching and dumping tension where it shouldn't be. Hold until you feel that you can’t keep your back in place any longer, then rest and repeat.

Gear recommendation: Again, with floor-based work, a thick exercise mat is key.

10. Walk this way to work on balance and stability

Side-to-side exercises are fundamental to improving strength through the outer hip muscles. That’s important, as these often-neglected muscles are key to keeping the body stabilized, improving knee and back health, and preventing falls.

Instructions: Place a looped mini band around your thighs, just above your knees. (You may want to sit down for this.) Stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and the band tight, but not completely stretched. Take a small step forward with your right foot, then left, keeping your feet shoulder-width apart at all times. Repeat to walk forward, then reverse your steps (walking backward) to return to where you started.

Gear recommendation: The Intey band set and the Glute Loop are both sturdy options for looped mini bands. Avoid very narrow or thin bands, as they are prone to snapping, fraying, and can uncomfortably dig into your thighs.

11. Mind your Is, Ys, and Ts to improve spinal health

This upper-back exercise looks easy, but it’s deceptively difficult. So much so that few people (of any age) can do it with any more than their bodyweight. That’s because it targets commonly missed muscles that support the shoulder blades. But training those muscles in this way will improve shoulder function, posture, and spinal health.

Instructions: Lie face-down on the floor with your arms stretched overhead and your entire body in one long line, like a “I.” Position your arms so that your thumbs point up toward the ceiling. Keeping your head and chest in contact with the floor, squeeze through your shoulder blades to raise your arms as high as possible from the floor—this may be only a few inches—pause, then lower back to start. Continue for a given number of reps, then repeat with your arms diagonally above your head in a “Y” then straight out to your sides like a “T.” You will likely be able to perform more reps with certain letters than with others.

Gear recommendation: Yes, by now you know that an exercise mat is helpful. But when you’re lying face-down? Non-negotiable.

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