low-impact workouts for seniors

Exercise is an important part of building body and mental wellness, no matter your life stage. Whether you’re 20 or 80, everyone should make exercise a part of their daily and weekly routines to ensure long-lasting health and wellness. But while the imperative to exercise remains throughout your life, the types of exercises most appropriate for you will change along with your age.

When you’re young, you might choose to incorporate a variety of different high- and low-impact exercises into your rotation. As you age, however, your joint support and bone density levels begin to decrease. While this doesn’t mean you should stop exercising, it does mean that it’s often time to start being kinder and gentler to your body. The rough ground-pounding workouts you favored before may now do more harm than good to your joints and bones.

The alternative is low-impact exercises for seniors. These types of workouts still help build muscles, flexibility and aerobic capacity, but they also protect your joints at the same time. This way, you can still enjoy all the benefits of exercise while avoiding the risks associated with intense workouts as the body ages. We’ve put together this list of some of the best low-impact exercises for seniors and older adults. Give them a try — and see how many you can incorporate into your regular routine.

1. Stretching

Stretching is an important part of any fitness routine. While it may not necessarily build muscle and strength, it’s critical for gaining flexibility, which is an important part of overall fitness that can be overlooked in favor of strength training. While there are plenty of tried-and-true stretches you can incorporate into your morning or evening routine — such as touching your toes and stretching from side to side — we think the cat-camel stretch is a vital one to include in any stretching routine. Also known as the cat-cow, this stretch is perfect for improving your spine’s stability and for increased flexibility in your back all day long. It also engages your arms and legs, making it a great exercise to do on its own or as a warm-up exercise for seniors before a long walk or aerobic exercise.

  • How to do it: Begin by getting onto hands and knees with your hands directly beneath your shoulders, knees directly beneath the hips and the back flat in a tabletop position. Start rounding your back by tucking the tailbone and chin down towards the floor and drawing the abdomen up towards the spine as you round the spine up as high as you can. Hold this position for 10 seconds before reversing the process. Return to the flat tabletop position before arching the back, lifting the chin and tailbone up towards the ceiling and dropping the belly towards the ground. Hold this position for 10 seconds before repeating the whole process several times.

2. Weight Training

For most of us, weight training looks like a few simple exercises at home or the gym, with small weights that we lift in repetitive, easy motions. If you’re looking for low-impact weight training for seniors, we recommend starting with something simple like chest flies. Not only does this exercise allow you to begin working with weights in a low-risk way, but it also develops the arm, chest and shoulder muscles. All you’ll need is two light hand weights or two objects of equivalent sizes.

weight training for seniors
  • How to do it: Begin lying flat on your back the floor or a yoga mat, with the knees bent, the feet flat on the floor and one weight in each hand. Raise the weights up above your chest with the arms slightly bent to keep the elbows from locking. Moving slowly and fluidly, lower the arms out to the floor on either side of you — stopping just before you reach the ground. Raise your arms back together in the center and repeat. For a greater challenge, try adding more repetitions or heavier weights. For an easier exercise, do fewer repetitions or choose lighter weights.

3. Low Impact Exercising at Home

Not all exercises require plenty of equipment or a trip to the gym. There are plenty of workout moves you can do in the comfort of your own home and with no more equipment than what you’ll already have lying around the house, including:

Step-Ups

Step-ups are a terrific exercise to incorporate into any workout plan because the only equipment you’ll need is a simple step — something most of us already have in our home. The major benefit you’ll gain from this exercise is strength in the leg muscles, but you’ll also experience increased balance and stability.

  • How to do it: Step up onto the stair with your right leg. Bring your weight up onto your right leg, but don’t set your left leg down. This way, the weight remains entirely on one leg. Hold this position for one count before stepping back down to the ground with the free leg, then the standing leg. Repeat this process 10-15 times per leg, or as many times as feels right for you. For more support, try holding a railing as you do the exercise. For a greater challenge, hold the one-footed position longer.

Squats With Alternate Reaches

Squats are one of the best low-impact workouts for seniors since your feet never leave the ground over the duration of the exercise. Squats can do wonders to strengthen the leg muscles, while adding a slight reaching twist also gets the arms engaged and helps train stability and balance as well. If you’re looking for a little extra security, add a chair into the mix to create a perfect low-impact chair exercise for seniors.

  • How to do it: Plant your feet hips width apart with the toes pointing forward and your arms held out straight in front of you, palms down. For extra security, place a chair behind you to catch you in case of a fall. Bend the knees to squat as if you were going to sit in the chair, but don’t actually sit. As you reach the bottom of your squat, reach your left arm to the right and twist your torso. Return to center as you straighten your knees and rotate the opposite direction next time. Repeat this process 10-15 times. For an extra challenge, add in some light hand weights.

Planks

Planks may be low impact, but they also require a bit of abdominal strength. If you have a highly sedentary lifestyle and haven’t done any exercises in years, it may be best to start your planks very gently and work up to holding the pose for longer. By training planks regularly, however, this exercise will quickly develop both your abdominal and back muscles — while also providing a bit of strengthening for the arms and legs for an excellent full-body workout.

planks are low-impact exercises for seniors
  • How to do it: There are two different styles of planks, and you can choose whichever works for you. A high plank looks exactly like the position you would hit at the top of a push-up — supporting your body on your hands and feet with straight arms and legs. A low plank is the exact same position, except instead of supporting yourself on straight arms, you’ll bend your arms at the elbows and support yourself on your lower arms instead. The lower plank position may be easier for beginners, but either way, the rules are the same. Keep your back and neck straight and strive to keep your body parallel to the floor as you hold this position.

4. Swimming

Swimming isn’t just fun for the kids. It’s also one of the best full-body workouts and low-impact aerobic options for seniors. It provides muscle training in the same way that weight exercises or resistance training do and offers the same level of aerobic training as jogging or playing soccer — all without the risks associated with these high-impact activities. Whether you’ve got a pool in your back yard or access to a fitness center-based pool, we highly recommend incorporating a little water-time into your routine. Not only is this great fun, highly relaxing and a perfect way to cool off on a hot day, but it also offers one of the greatest full-body workouts you can find anywhere.

5. Yoga

Did you know that nearly 40% of all yoga practitioners in the United States are over the age of 50? There’s a reason for that. Other than the fact that yoga is great at improving strength, balance, flexibility and peace of mind, it’s also a wonderful low-impact exercise. There’s no running, jumping or crashing into other people in yoga. Instead, it’s just a series of slow and controlled movements that can be adapted to suit anyone of any age or ability level. Yoga is also an excellent choice because it can be done by anyone, anytime and anywhere. While there are certainly yoga studios, classes and groups that you can join for a more communal and personable practice that will greatly enhance your overall experience, this isn’t necessary to perform yoga. You can buy books on yoga, browse the internet for poses and tips and even pull up videos on YouTube of certified yoga instructors walking you through sessions of your preferred length. Whichever way you choose to practice yoga, this is one low-impact exercise we think anyone can benefit from.

6. Walking

Perhaps the most universal exercise on the planet, walking is hard to beat when it comes to finding exercises you can do anywhere and with no equipment. As long as you have a treadmill or an open road and a pair of decent walking shoes or sneakers, you can get started on this exercise with an almost nonexistent risk of injury. One of the reasons walking is such a great choice is that it’s extremely customizable — based on how much exercise you’re looking for and how fit you are currently. Are you looking for high-intensity exercise? Add in some hills and increase your walking pace. Would you rather keep things relaxed and gentle? Stick to flat places and stroll along at a slow pace. Either way, you’re working your leg and back muscles, working your lungs and heart and burning calories all the way. For best results, experts recommend establishing a regular walking habit of roughly 30 minutes a day and five days per week.

eliptical low-impact workout for seniors

7. Elliptical Machines

If you’re in search of low-impact HIIT (high-intensity interval training) for seniors, you might initially be stumped, as it can seem like all high-intensity exercises are also high-impact. That’s where the elliptical machine comes in. This machine allows you all the same heart-pounding exercise you might hope to gain from jogging, but without the bone-jarring risks. And for those looking for something aerobic but not quite so intense, the elliptical is perfect as well. Users can adjust the resistance of the machine and pedal just as fast or slow as they choose for a personalized workout that’s just right for the individual. To use an elliptical machine, you’ll need access to a gym or fitness center that has these machines on site — or you’ll need a home elliptical.

8. Cycling

Cycling is another exercise that combines the aerobic challenges of jogging with leg muscle strengthening. It also helps individuals train for increased balance and stability. If you own a bicycle of your own, you can ride anywhere you like — from your own neighborhood and street to bike paths in a park — and if you don’t, most gyms and fitness center offer stationary bikes that let you pedal away while never moving from the same spot. Like ellipticals, bikes are fantastic because of how much you can vary your workout based on personal preference. If you’re looking to keep things casual, you can ride along a flat sidewalk or keep the resistance level low on your stationary bike. If you’re trying to work up a sweat, you can always search out hills and crank up the resistance for a workout that'll get your heart pumping — all without any of the jarring associated with high-impact workouts.

9. YMCA Exercise Classes

One of the best ways to maintain an active lifestyle is to do it in a community with others. A group setting provides accountability to keep you exercising even on the days when it doesn’t sound so fun — and it also provides inspiration and encouragement as you surround yourself with friends on a similar fitness journey. When you join Gateway Region YMCA, you gain access to a community dedicated to improving your health. In addition to taking advantage of our fitness facilities — including the pool, elliptical machines and treadmills — you can also participate in free exercise classes for seniors across a huge variety of disciplines. Try out adult sports like volleyball and racquetball, personal training and martial arts as you seek to maintain the healthiest lifestyle you can. To take advantage of these fantastic classes and more, sign up for a membership at the Y today — and take the next step towards living your best life.