Fitness Tips

These Are the Best Exercises for Longevity, According to a Functional Aging Trainer

Photo: Getty Images/Kathrin Ziegler
Exercise comes with a whole lot of instant gratification. A single sweat session can immediately put you in a better mood (thanks, endorphins), and stringing enough of them together can have an impact on your health and body after only a few weeks.

But while most of us tend to think in the short term as far as our fitness goals go, it's in our best interests to look years—or even decades—in the future. Because, thanks to longevity exercises, we can prep our bodies to properly function for as long as possible

"As you age, not being active and not being strong can mean you're not able to do things in your life," says Aleksandra Stacha-Fleming, founder of New York City's Longevity Lab, a gym that works with people of all ages to create workouts that help their bodies age properly. "You won’t be able to move around as well—you might not be able to climb up a flight of stairs in the subway without getting out of breath." Considering that a sedentary lifestyle ups the risk for things like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, it's extra-important to keep moving well into your twilight years.

While it may seem like you won't need to worry about these things until you retire, it's never too early to start prioritizing them as part of your exercise program. "You don’t want to wait until it’s too late,” says Stacha-Fleming, because it's most helpful to begin this work before you get some sort of a diagnosis or injury.

With that in mind, every longevity-focused workout program should be made up of three things: cardio, strength, and flexibility or mobility training. Each of these elements serves a specific purpose on its own, but they work best in tandem. "Some people do only cardio, some people do only strength training, but you need to have it all,” says Stacha-Fleming. “They need to work in unity.”

1. For your heart: Cardio

Regularly getting your heart pumping is a critical factor in any exercise regimen, but it’s particularly important when we’re talking about longevity. “Your heart is a muscle, and you need to stimulate it,” says Stacha-Fleming. "If you don’t have any kind of cardiovascular capacity, you aren’t going to last more than 10 or 15 minutes in any workout, because you’re going to be out of breath and won’t be able to recover as well.” In other words, keeping your heart strong is the key to keeping the rest of your body strong, too.

Try this cardio workout for longevity: Swimming

Although any workout that gets your heart going—from brisk walking to jumping rope—will keep your ticker healthy, Seena Mathew, PhD, a neurobiologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, previously told Well+Good that swimming also offers a boost for your brain.

"It's been found that when you have memory impairments and cognitive decline, you have lower levels of [brain derived neurotrophic factor], and what has been seen is that swimming helps to increase those levels," she says. "This helps with memory and cognition, so over time, your memory is improving or staying the same as you age instead of declining."

Although researchers aren't 100 percent sure why swimming has this effect, Dr. Mathew hypothesizes that it might have something to do with the calming effects of water and the meditative quality of getting in your laps, or the full body workout you get from the water's resistance. Either way, hopping in the pool can give you a double whammy of heart and brain benefits that boost longevity.

2. For your bones: Strength training

"You need to work your muscles to give signals to your bones to get stronger,” says Stacha-Fleming. "Weight bearing exercises help you have stronger bones, which help you sustain strength for the long run.”

The strength of your bones is directly related to their density in minerals, like calcium, and lack of exercise leads to a greater loss of these important bone minerals (which can leave you more prone to osteoporosis and breakages). Women, in particular, should prioritize bone-building exercises, because our bone density decreases dramatically when we go through menopause.

Try this strength training exercise for longevity: Squats

Physical therapist Joel Giffin, DPT, founder of Flex Physical Therapy, previously told Well+Good that squats are one of the best exercises for longevity—no matter your age. "There are infinite ways to modify, progress, change, and adjust it to accommodate the abilities of the individual," Dr. Giffin told us. "When done with optimal form, a squat is beneficial regardless of the level of difficulty because it is a functional exercise that represents a movement we need to do every day: going from sitting to standing, or vice versa." Squats also check off most of the major muscle group boxes—they activate the glutes, legs, hips, and core, and by holding a dumbbell or kettlebell, you can add in a bonus upper body burn at the same time.

Learn how to perfect your squat form with trainer Megan Roup:

3. For balance: Flexibility and mobility

Flexibility (your muscles’ ability to stretch) and mobility (your joints’ ability to reach their full range) are both important in ensuring proper movement and balance later on in life—just ask this 74-year-old Australian man who works on his mobility every day.

Try this mobility move for longevity: Sitting on the floor

Although most of us likely spend more time sedentary than is healthy, mixing it up by sitting on the floor actually comes with a longevity boost. That's because not only does sitting cross-legged challenge your mobility, getting up and down from the floor works your core and your balance. "Sitting on the floor and periodically doing long, deep squats are a great way to boost circulation, blood flow, and energy, increase flexibility and range of motion, create space and build some deeper awareness of your body while helping you feel grounded," body alignment specialist Lauren Roxburgh previously told Well+Good.

Yoga flows, like the one demonstrated here, also can help you improve both flexibility and mobility:

One final note

While incorporating any movement into your routine is helpful, you'll want to be sure to kick things up a notch once in awhile. Research shows that the best workouts for longevity involve high intensity physical activity. Whether that's a HIIT class or a faster walk than you're used to just depends on your body and what gets your blood pumping.

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