The older you get, the more important strength, agility, power, and lean mass become. This isn’t how most people approach old age. They expect strength and all the other trappings of physical capacity to degenerate, and so they do. It’s what happens all around us, every day. Seniors are feeble, right?
The weight room is scary for a lot of people. Hell, even able-bodied youngsters in the prime of their lives shy away from lifting heavy things. So, first things first: Seniors should definitely strength train. If you’re unsure of your form and capabilities, find a trainer who works with older folks and ensure your safety. Just get out there.
But it’s not the only way. If, for whatever reason, you can’t or won’t do traditional strength training, or you just want to diversify your training arsenal, I’ve come up with several uncommon exercises and activities to help you stay strong, agile, fit, and powerful as you age.
Stair climbing performance is a powerful predictor of resilience in the elderly—how well they bounce back from health incidents. In older adults undergoing abdominal surgery, stair climbing performance is the single best predictor of peri-operative complications. Same goes for postoperative cardiopulmonary complications, complications following lung cancer surgery, and many others.
Unlike some other, more isolated performance tests used to indicate health or mortality risk (like walking speed or handgrip strength) stair walking is a robust, compound movement that requires coordination, balance, and strong glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Training the stairs will likely transfer over to the health conditions it associates with, whereas increasing grip strength or forcing yourself to walk faster probably doesn’t.
In chronic stroke patients, regular stair training (30 minutes a day, 5 days a week for 4 weeks) improved postural control and balance.
You can start by taking the stairs whenever possible. Skip the elevator. And if you get overly tired with a few flights to go, you can hop over to the elevator and finish out your ascent.
Consider adding weight when regular stairs get too easy.
Dancing isn’t just fun. It can be a potent training tool, too. And everything seems to work. Whether it’s Turkish folk, traditional Thai dance, Scottish country dance, or line dancing, dancing can really incease functional capacity and even strength in older adults.
It may even build muscle. An 8-week ballroom dancing regimen led to minor leg hypertrophy in older women.
There are tons of ways to incorporate dance. Take a class and learn to really dance. Put on your favorite playlist in the morning and rock out in your kitchen (that’s my favorite). Play one of the motion-sensing dancing video games with a grateful child.
For most older people, jumping is a huge hurdle. Many have long ago accepted that they’ll no longer jump. Steps become looming obstacles. The prospect of jumping up onto, over, or—heaven forbid—down from objects is difficult to fathom when you’re worried about breaking or tearing something.
Turns out that facing those fears and engaging in jump training can actually improve strength and functional capacity (rising from a chair) in elderly women.
It really doesn’t take very much, especially if your starting place is little to no exercise. Hopping in place, just enough to leave the ground, for 20-40 reps is enough to strengthen elderly bone and muscle while improving balance and general agility. I’m serious, by the way: not even an inch off the ground works. Just take a look at this video for a visual. Grandma/pa can absolutely handle that.
An 11-week bilateral hopping program with progressive intensity improved neuromuscular function in older men, allowing them to jump higher and absorb impact more efficiently.
Go to a park at 6:30 A.M. in any city with a sizable Chinese population and you’ll probably see dozens of senior citizens doing tai chi. It’s beauitful to watch, and regular practitioners of tai chi have stronger legs and more muscle endurance than non-practitioners, but that doesn’t mean the tai chi is responsible. Can it build strength?
Yes. Tai chi has been shown to prevent age-related declines in lower limb strength in older men, improve bone density and muscle strength in older women, and increase muscle strength and torque in older men.
That said, tai chi is a subtle way to train. Improvements accumulate across months, not days or weeks. If you want to use tai chi to get stronger, you’d better be in it for the long haul.
Superslow training actually began as a safe way to treat osteoporosis in elderly women, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: lifting and lowering weights at an extremely slow, deliberate pace. The concentric portion (lifting) should take around ten seconds, and the eccentric portion (lowering) should take four.
The definitive book on the subject is Dr. Doug McGuff’s Body By Science. Several years ago, he penned a guest post for the blog that serves as a great introduction to superslow training. Frankly, it’s probably enough to get most people started. I also came up with a quick (well, not too quick) bodyweight workout using superslow principles.
If you feel comfortable with your lifts, superfast resistance training is another option for older people. It’s also what it sounds like: moving the weight as fast as you can while maintaining good form and crisp technique (don’t “throw” or heave the weight).
In one recent study of older women, both superfast and superslow resistance training improved functional capacity, muscle performance, and quality of life, but superfast resistance training produced greater improvements in muscle power and functional capacity.
Medicine balls slams are fun to do. They’re hard, but because you’re slamming a sturdy sphere into the ground with all your might, you forget the work and focus on the sensation. Older folks don’t really get many opportunities to express the full brunt of their power like that. They should. It’s liberating (I’ve seen it happen), and just a single session of medicine ball training improves postural control, balance, and stability.
It’s a good strength-building workout for them. As part of a training regimen that including a little strength training and jumping, high speed medicine ball training (with a 1.5 kg ball) increased muscle strength and power in elderly women.
Head over to Amazon and pick up a basic medicine ball for under $30.
I know, I know. I sound crazy. Hear me out.
I’ve always recommended hill sprints over flat sprints for people with bad knees because hills are easier on the joints. When you run uphill, you hit the ground more softly and you don’t “fall” as far. I maintain that all else being equal, hill sprints are safer for older adults than flat sprints.
Sprinting is relative, remember. I’ve taken older folks out to hills, and their “sprints” might look like fast walks or quick jogs. The key is going as hard as you can as safely as you can.
Don’t do it very often. Sprints require a lot of recovery time. Once a week is enough to improve muscle power in older men.
Seniors who do manage to make sprinting work will probably enjoy stronger bones.
And although this isn’t “strength” or “fitness,” per se, sprinting seems to counteract the damaging effect of aging on glucose regulation.
Playing sports. Most sports are dynamic, meaning you’ll have to react, respond, and move through multiple spatiotemporal planes and domains. That makes sports somewhat risky, but it also means they can build general physical adeptness like few other activities.
Research supports the idea of older folks playing sports, particularly soccer. For example, soccer training improved basically every health and fitness biomarker they measured in middle-aged women. A year of soccer improved blood pressure, fat mass, bone density, sprint time, endurance, and blood lipids in mildly hypertensive middle-aged women.
I see no reason seniors wouldn’t be able to get similar benefits playing other sports. Raquetball, tennis, basketball, Ultimate frisbee all require—and train—quick movements, good hand-eye coordination, explosive power, and endurance.
After reading all this, if you’re still not sure how to get stronger as an older or aging person, I don’t know what to tell you. It all works. It’s all right there. Most of the exercises and activities I describe are downright fun, especially in the right company.
So, get out there and start doing them. Or tell someone you know and love who needs them to go do them.
What’d I miss, though? There’s always something. Older folks: how do you like to work out? Younger folks: have the older people in your life let themselves go, or do they model lifelong fitness (and maybe give you a run for your money)?
Thanks for reading, everyone. Take care.