Exercise is undoubtedly one of the best ways for seniors to stay healthy (adhering to a nutritious, balanced diet is also important!).
However, exercise runs a wide gamut, and not all activities are necessarily appropriate for seniors.
Which types of exercise should the elderly not do?
Seniors should avoid exercises that require a lot of bending (such as standing toe touches or deep squats), heavy running, crunching their abdomen (such as sit-ups), and intense exertion, like HIIT. These exercises are too strenuous on their bodies.
This article will take you through a list of exercises seniors should avoid engaging in and discuss the limitations of exercise for the elderly.
We’ll also cover which regular exercise the AARP most recommends for seniors, so keep reading!
What Exercises Should Older Adults Not Do?
Exercising is generally safe for seniors, especially with their doctor’s approval. However, some exercises can do more harm than good for older adults.
It’s best to avoid the following exercises once you enter your golden years:
Standing Toe Touches
A standing toe touch might seem like a fairly easy and safe exercise, but we still recommend the elderly cut it from their routine.
Although it’s not hard to do and not very intensive either, standing toe touches require a lot of bending over.
Maybe a few toe touches wouldn’t be so bad, but enough of them can lead to a lot of risks for the elderly.
For example, they can aggravate any existing back pain. They can also become dizzy from all that bending over, which increases their risk of falling.
If a senior insists on staying limber with toe touches, at least do them in a seated position.
Limit the number of reps and listen to the body’s responses. Stop the exercise when feeling dizzy or disoriented. Don’t push through any pain.
Squats are all the rage these days, as they can build a more well-defined bottom half, including the rear and leg muscles.
Squats also require good core strength to stay balanced.
Therein lies the problem for older adults. As they age, many people struggle with balance enough as it is.
Any exercises that make them feel even more unbalanced should be avoided.
It’s not only that doing deep squats can make a senior feel unsteady on their feet, such as also the case with standing toe touches.
This exercise can also lead to lower back pain if a senior doesn’t do it correctly.
Further, even if they do follow the deep squat protocol, they’re still at risk of knee joint strain.
If a senior already has knee joint arthritis, doing deep squats will irritate the condition further and lead to more pain.
Once again, it’s a chair to the rescue. Chair sits are like squats but less potentially injurious to a senior’s body.
HIIT stands for high-intensity interval training. These vigorous exercises are all about getting your heart rate up and increasing your endurance through high-level cardiovascular exercise.
Pushing past one’s comfort zone is the name of the game.
While HIIT is an acceptable form of exercise for healthy younger adults, it’s not such a good idea for seniors unless they are in great physical condition, have healthy lungs and hearts, and approval from their doctor.
Even then, it’s best to keep the HIIT exercise to very short intervals and take long breaks in between.
Also be sure to work with a trainer or under supervision.
The risks of HIIT mean that a senior with poor heart or lung health could risk being unable to breathe after doing HIIT exercises.
They could even have a cardiac episode such as a heart attack.
In the same vein, heavy sprinting or running is ill-advised for most older adults.
This physical activity can cause breathing and heart issues in seniors with compromised health.
Running can also strain the joints and bones, especially if a senior doesn’t use the proper form when running.
If a senior runs outdoors, between the intensity of the exercise and the weather, they can become fatigued. They’re likelier to trip and fall.
Even running indoors on a treadmill can cause falls if the elderly can’t keep up with the pace of the treadmill after a while.
Rather than heavy running and sprinting, older adults should reduce their pace to a slow jog or brisk walking.
Crunches And Sit Ups
We’ll cover the reasons why senior citizens should refrain from doing exercises involving their abdominal muscles later in this article, but for right now, know that it shouldn’t be included in workout routines for older people.
Weightlifting can benefit one’s bone density, cardiovascular health, and joints. It’s also a great way to bolster the muscles.
However, in older age, deadlifting is a very risky exercise, and one that’s more harm than it’s worth.
A senior can lift weights too heavy for them and strain their spine, muscles, joints, and bones.
If they have osteoporosis, they could break a bone or instantly collapse under the weight.
They can also aggravate preexisting medical conditions.
Rather than risk deadlifting, an older adult can lift kettlebells appropriately weighted for them if their doctor approves it.
Then there’s power yoga, referred to as Vinyasa yoga. This is a much more high-paced type of yoga for increasing endurance and strength.
Like other high-intensity exercise, power yoga is too risky for seniors. They could end up overtired, which increases their risk of falls, or they could strain their body.
Slower-paced yoga and chair yoga is a great way for an older adult to build flexibility.
What Is Too Much Exercise For Seniors?
As you no doubt know, the health benefits of exercise are many.
PA [physical activity] is a protective factor for noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer  and PA is associated with improved mental health , delay in the onset of dementia , and improved quality of life and wellbeing [5, 6]. The health benefits of PA are well documented with higher levels and greater frequency of PA being associated with reduced risk and improved health in a number of key areas.”National Library of Medicine
That same study reports, “Improvements in mental health, emotional, psychological, and social well-being and cognitive function are also associated with regular PA [physical activity].”
Along with helping your mental health and keeping your heart strong, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says strength training can “reduce the signs and symptoms of many diseases and chronic conditions in the following ways: Arthritis—Reduces pain and stiffness, and increases strength and flexibility. Diabetes—Improves glycemic control. Osteoporosis—Builds bone density and reduces risk for falls.”
Engaging in a regular exercise program is one of those innately good-for-you things in life, but like drinking too much water or taking too many supplements, you can have too much of a good thing.
Seniors must be mindful of how much exercise they engage in every week, even if they were once previously very fit and active.
Their bodies are different now, and exercising for more than 7.5 hours a week can be deleterious to their health.
That’s according to a 2012 publication of Mayo Clinic Proceedings.
The study reported that “long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening.”
The researchers say this hasn’t been definitively proven.
However, overexercising is known to cause many health maladies, from joint and muscle strain to a greater likelihood of injuries from a worn-down body.
Dividing 7.5 hours of exercise into seven days a week means about an hour of moderate exercise a day.
Some seniors can potentially do more but should speak to their doctors when making any changes to their exercise plan.
Why Shouldn’t Seniors Do Sit-Ups?
Another exercise to add to the above list that seniors shouldn’t do is the classic sit-up.
A sit-up seems rather harmless at first glance: lie flat on the floor on your back, bend your knees, put your hands behind your ears, and then raise your torso to your thighs.
However, plenty of people don’t do sit-ups properly, and that’s an issue that persists regardless of an exerciser’s age.
While a younger adult can get away with improper form for longer since their body is more resilient, the same does not apply to the elderly.
All that bending isn’t good at their age, especially for the neck, which receives a lot of strain when doing sit-ups.
Although sit-ups were once regarded as the penultimate exercise for a tight core, that’s since been disproven.
This exercise doesn’t work the myriad of muscles once claimed, so a senior can leave it out of their exercise routine without missing out on much!
Best Exercises For Seniors
So if the above-mentioned exercises are not good for older adults, which types of exercise should they be doing?
1. Walking – One of the simplest, yet most effective exercises for seniors is walking.
Walking is a low-impact exercise that can improve your cardiovascular health, strength, and mood.
You can walk alone or with a friend; the key is to choose a comfortable pace that allows you to walk for at least 30 minutes a day.
You can start with short walks and gradually increase the distance and intensity over time.
2. Strength Training – As we age, our muscle mass decreases, and we become weaker. Strength training can help seniors maintain and build muscles, improve bone density, and maintain a healthy weight.
It is important to work with a trainer or physical therapist to ensure you are using the correct techniques and equipment.
3. Tai Chi – Tai Chi is a gentle form of exercise that combines slow, flowing movements and deep breathing.
Tai Chi can help improve balance, reduce stress, and increase flexibility. It is a low-impact exercise that is suitable for seniors of all fitness levels.
You can practice Tai Chi alone or in a group setting.
4. Yoga – Yoga is a mind-body exercise that can improve flexibility, strength, balance, and mental well-being. Yoga is a low-impact exercise that is suitable for seniors of all fitness levels.
You can start with basic yoga poses and gradually progress to more challenging poses.
Although there are online classes available for seniors, it is important to work with a qualified yoga instructor who can modify poses based on your abilities and limitations.
Flexibility exercises like regular yoga and tai chi are very good for seniors; power yoga not so much!
5. Swimming – Swimming is a low-impact exercise that can improve cardiovascular health, muscle strength, and flexibility.
Swimming is an excellent exercise for seniors with joint pain or arthritis.
You can swim laps, participate in water aerobics, or simply enjoy a relaxing swim.
I would add that water aerobics is a great way to get in some cardio without much stress on aching joints, as is riding a stationary bike.
What Is The AARP #1 Exercise For Seniors? (And Why?)
If not sit-ups and the other exercises we’ve looked at, what kinds of moves are safe for seniors? What does AARP recommend?
AARP calls squats the best exercise a senior can do. Now, I know what you’re going to say. Didn’t we just condemn squats for seniors? We did, but those were deep squats.
Regular squats, which don’t require an older adult to bend as deeply, have more of an application in everyday life, which is why the AARP vouches for them.
For example, a senior will naturally squat when they get up from a chair, climb into their vehicle, and even when using the bathroom.
Building better lower back, glute, core, and leg muscles through squatting will make it easier for a senior to get through their day-to-day lives.
When they want to stand up properly from a chair to prevent other bodily pain, they can.
They can also climb stairs more confidently and lift themselves from the toilet.
Further, squats might reduce the elderly’s likelihood of falling, as they’re a good exercise for better balance.
The AARP also notes that squats will safeguard the joints, so they’re recommended for those with joint issues.
If a person can’t do regular squats, chair squats can be a better alternative.
This simple exercise can still help them maintain muscle mass in their legs with less risk of injury.
Regular exercise is a requirement to retain muscle strength, help stave of certain health conditions, and to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but seniors must tread carefully.
They should only exercise for about seven hours per week, and there’s a whole litany of exercises to leave out of their regimens, replacing them with lower-intensity activities.
Whether incorporating squats, stair climbing, kettlebells, or yoga into a routine, a senior should always consult their doctor before beginning a new exercise plan.