But that doesn’t necessarily mean putting your body through grueling workout after grueling workout—in fact, it’s much simpler and less brutal than that.
How to exercise for healthy aging
When thinking holistically about exercise for longevity, there are some common themes to keep in mind.
Think about function first
Different workouts can address different facets of aging, like how high-impact workouts benefit bone strength, for instance. But nothing is quite as useful to healthy aging as functional fitness. This fitness buzzword essentially means training in a way that offers strength you can use in the movements you do in everyday life. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s cardio or lifting weights.
“If an exercise yields an adaptation that helps someone become better able to do what they need to do, then it’s functional,” explains Ryan Chow, DPT, founder of Reload, a physical therapy and fitness practice, where he frequently works with aging and elderly populations.
“Function is defined as ‘useful, ‘purposeful’—stuff like bending, twisting, lifting, loading, pushing, pulling, squatting, and hauling,” adds Ingrid Clay, CPT, a trainer on Centr, a personalized coaching app. Functional fitness often works on flexibility and balance, which are key components of healthy aging, as they help prevent falls and injuries, adds Clay. Functional exercises are designed to help you, say, get up out of a car, or safely walk down stairs—real-life movements we need to do to stay independent as we age.
Do it often enough
It’s not just about how you move, but how much time you spend moving. Dr. Chow recommends following the physical activity guidelines set by the World Health Organization or American Heart Association: 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise throughout the week and progressive resistance training (aka strength training) targeting all major muscle groups twice a week.
“The mounting evidence suggests that this can reduce all causes of mortality by 40 percent,” says Dr. Chow. “Maybe more importantly, reaching these guidelines is also giving you [greater] quality of life.”
Vary your workouts
For best results as you age, avoid doing the same type of exercise again and again. Instead, mix things up. Even if what you love most is walking, push yourself to try a yoga class or hop on a bicycle every so often. This ensures you’re moving your body in all planes of motion and maintaining a strong heart, lungs, and muscles. “Doing both resistance training and cardiovascular training can keep your metabolic and cardiovascular systems healthy, while maintaining the health and function of your muscles and joints so that you can be able-bodied as you get older,” says Dr. Chow.
Five strength exercises you can do at home for healthy aging
Whether you’re 25 or 75, these functional exercises recommended by Dr. Chow will help set you up for safe, comfortable movement for life. Add them to your weekly routine, along with regular bouts of aerobic exercise for a longevity-focused regimen.
Isometric split squat
“This exercise is related to balance, and getting up and down from the ground,” says Dr. Chow.
- With one foot in front and the other behind you, bend both knees coming into a 90-degree bend with both legs.
- Hold for as long as you can, with the goal of working up to two minutes.
Modification: If 90-degrees is too deep to bend and hold comfortability, hold the position a bit higher or use a sturdy object to touch lightly for support.
Supported deep squat
“This exercise trains both strength and mobility in the hips and knees,” says Dr. Chow. Clay adds that the lower body strength you build with squats “is important for maintaining balance and mobility as we age.”
- Stand in front of a closed door that does not swing toward you. Feet should be slightly wider than hip-distance apart and toes slightly turned out.
- Grab the door handle for leverage to pull against as you bend both knees to slowly come into a squat, taking five seconds to get there.
- Pause at the bottom for one second.
- Slowly push through soles of the feet to return to standing, taking five seconds to get there.
Form note: Keep tension on the door handle to engage the upper body, which helps maintain a straight back throughout the movement.
Wall sit with heel raise
“This exercise trains the soleus and the Achilles tendon to maintain the ability to be springy and absorb impact in the hips, knees, and ankles,” says Dr. Chow.
- Stand with your back toward a wall. Press your head, upper back, and butt against the wall, as you walk your feet away from it and begin to slide into a sitting position, with knees and hips bent at 90 degrees.
- Raise your heels up without moving anything else. Aim to hold for 60 seconds.
Progression: Once you’re able to hold the heel-elevated wall sit for a minute, try holding for as long as possible on one leg, then the next.
“This exercise trains the muscles of the upper back to maintain the ability to stay upright,” says Dr. Chow. “These are your antigravity muscles to limit the negative effects of slouching and slumping.”
- Begin standing with hands behind your ears, palms facing forward, and elbows out wide.
- Engage your lats (the large muscles on the sides and upper back) to pull your elbows down and in toward your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
- Squeeze and hold for five seconds.
Form tip: Don’t crunch inward when bringing elbows down to sides. Keep your chest lifted. Arms will mimic the letter W.
“This move trains your shoulders, trunk, thighs, and most importantly, the toes,” says Dr. Chow. “It’s important to maintain the ability to land on the toes to allow for push-off during quick activities like running or walking fast, plus it controls stress to the big toe joint, which can prevent bunion development.”
- Start in a tabletop position on hands and knees, with your toes tucked under.
- Engage the core to lift knees off the ground in a hover.
- From here, crawl slowly forward, back, and side to side with the goal of staying moving and knees elevated for 30 seconds.
Form tip: Try to keep your back flat and hips parallel to the ground.
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