5 functional exercises every older adult should do

Move through everyday life with more strength (and confidence) with these injury-preventing exercises. 

Julia Sullivan
Middle-aged man cutting hedges.

When you were young, you probably used exercise as a means to a goal: flat abs, more speed, a shapely backside. 

Achieving those feats is still very much within your grasp — 90-somethings often make headlines after running marathons or picking up a new sport like powerlifting. But for many older adults, fending off injuries, preventing disease, completing daily chores and keeping the number on the scale in check are the primary goals.

Luckily, there’s a fitness regimen designed just for that: functional fitness. 

“Functional fitness helps prepare a person for the demands of daily life,” explains exercise physiologist Liz Davis. She explains that, with functional fitness, there’s always a real-life application –– or an “event” — that you’re training for. 

Those daily demands might mean better agility and more power for a competitive soccer player in their 20s or 30s. But for a person in their 60s and beyond, the events might be slightly less exciting: bending down to pick up a package, pushing a lawnmower or getting out of bed with greater ease. 

These types of tasks that require some strength and mobility are considered activities of daily living, or ADLs, according to Davis. And no two people’s ADLs will look exactly the same.

“Functional fitness is personalized fitness,” Davis says. “You’re essentially training for your life.” 

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But whether you’re looking to hoist up a box of photos without throwing out your back or reach a soup can on a high-up shelf, there’s one major commonality with ADLs and older adults: an inability to perform them properly can put you at a major risk of injury. 

One 2016 study from the Journal of Aging and Gerontology found that those who reported difficulty or pain with tasks like showering, shopping, walking or bending down to pick up something from the floor were up to 79% more likely to experience a debilitating fall. 

That difficulty is due, in part, to age-related muscle loss (or sarcopenia), says Davis. Beginning at age 30, adults start to lose muscle mass. That translates to a 10% to 15% loss of strength with each passing decade up to about age 70, and a 25% to 40% decline thereafter. 

“Many seniors I work with believe that their main health focus as they age should be cardiovascular, and that strength training is for meatheads,” she explains. “Strength training is the No. 1 thing seniors can do to maintain a high quality of life as they age, as it will help to slow the rate of sarcopenia or muscle loss. This will make performing ADLs much easier –– and safer.” 

There’s more good news: A 2018 study from the Journal of Physical Therapy Science found that older adults who performed functional exercises like marching in place and chair squats for 12 weeks greatly improved their functional mobility, while reducing their risk of injury. 

And specifically with functional fitness (as opposed to traditional strength training exercises like biceps curls), notes Davis, you’re not just building muscle through certain exercises. Your brain health is in play, too. 

“Functional exercises help to train a neurological pattern,” she explains. “For example, sitting up and down repetitively in a chair while holding a gallon jug will fatigue your muscles, but it also trains your brain to recognize –– and feel more confident in –– the movement.”

What this means: When it comes time to bend down and pick up a package on the porch, your body is automatically poised to execute it using the correct muscles (your hamstrings, glutes) versus the wrong ones (your lower back).

While Davis emphasizes that everyone’s ADLs won’t look alike, there are some common events she sees her older clients needing help with most: getting out of bed, reaching something high up, picking something up off the floor, twisting around slightly and going up and down the stairs. 

Here, she offers five exercises to help train for those moments. Do one, a few or all five exercises below at least two times per week, depending on what ADL you want to feel stronger at. 

Davis notes that, if you opt to add weight to any of the exercises below, first make sure that you can complete the move with proper form for at least 15 reps. Always consult with your doctor before attempting a new exercise program. 

Activity of Daily Living #1: Getting Out of Bed or Up Off the Floor

The functional exercise for it: Wall or counter push-ups 
Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, biceps, core

How to do it: 

  • Standing tall, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, position your body facing a wall or sturdy surface. Leave roughly 1 to 2 inches of room between your toes and the wall. Press your palms, fingers splayed, to the wall in front of you. Tighten your abdominal muscles. This is your starting position.
  • Keeping your elbows tight to your torso, bend your arms as you bring your body toward the wall. 
  • Once your nose almost touches the wall, use your arms to push your body back to the starting position. That’s one rep. 
  • Complete 10 to 15 reps.

Make it harder: If 15 reps feels too easy, stand further away from the wall. 

Activity of Daily Living #2: Reaching Something on a High-Up Shelf 

The functional exercise for it: One-arm overhead presses 
Muscles worked: Shoulders, biceps, triceps, wrist (grip)

How to do it:

  • In a seated or standing position, bring your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Plant them firmly on the floor. Bend both of your arms at the elbow, palms facing forward, chest proud. Your hands should be in line with your shoulders. This is your starting position. 
  • Leaving your left hand near your shoulder, extend your right hand vertically as high as you can. 
  • Slowly and with control, bring your right hand back to the starting position. That’s one rep. 
  • Complete 10 to 15 reps on the right arm, then 10 to 15 with the left arm. 

Make it harder: If 15 reps feels too easy, hold a soup can or dumbbell in the hand of the working arm. 

Activity of Daily Living #3: Picking Something Up Off the Floor
 

The functional exercise for it: Chair squat
Muscles worked: Glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, core

How to do it: 

  • Stand in front of a sturdy chair, facing away from it, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Tighten your abdominal muscles. This is your starting position. 
  • Slowly and with control, start to bend forward from your hips (not your waist) as you bend your knees to lower yourself into the chair. Keep your chest and chin high. You can hold your arms out horizontally in front of you or grab the chair’s arm rests, if available, to help you descend. 
  • Once seated in the chair, pause, then plant your feet firmly on the ground as you use your legs to propel yourself to a vertical standing position. That’s one rep.
  • Complete 10 to 15 reps.

Make it harder: If 15 reps feels too easy, hold a duffel bag filled with clothing or a gallon jug filled with liquid near your chest. 

Activity of Daily Living #4: Going Up and Down the Stairs

The functional exercise for it: Marching in place
Muscles worked: Quads, hamstrings, calves, core

How to do it: 

  • Position yourself adjacent to a sturdy surface that you can use to support your weight. Stand straight, feet shoulder-width apart, while tightening your abdominal muscles. 
  • With one arm holding the sturdy surface for support, bend your opposite elbow to a 90-degree angle, fingers loosely curled forward (avoid tightening your hands into a ball). Relax your shoulders and keep your chest high. This is your starting position.
  • With your foot closest to the sturdy surface planted firmly on the ground, drive your other knee upward so that your knee forms a 90-degree angle. Hold for two full counts (1-1,000, 2-1,000), then slowly bring your leg back to the starting position. Continue facing the same direction and repeat with the opposite leg. That’s one rep.
  • Complete 10 to 15 reps (30 total for both legs).

Make it harder: If 15 reps feels too easy, consider removing your hand from the support (although keep it nearby just in case). 

Activity of Daily Living #5: Raking, or Moving Clothing from a Dryer to a Laundry Basket

The functional exercise for it: Gentle spinal twists
Muscles worked: Lumbar spine, core 

How to do it: 

  • In a seated position, plant your feet hip-width apart. Rest your hands on your lap, palms facing down. If your chair has armrests, you can rest your hands on those instead. Keep your spine erect and your chest high. This is your starting position. 
  • Gently twist your torso to the right approximately 30 degrees. (Think: Between 1 o’clock and 2 o’clock. Once you’ve hit 3 o’clock, you’ve gone too far.) Aim to keep your head in line with your torso as you move. 
  • Once you’ve reached a 30-degree twist, slowly return to your starting position. Repeat Step #2 on the left. That’s one rep. 
  • Complete 10 to 15 reps (30 total twists).

Make it harder: Instead of twisting your torso further than 30 degrees (which can result in an injury or strain), hold a household item (a hardcover book or soup can, for example) with both hands up near your chest as you twist.
 

This Way to a Stronger You
Interested in learning more about strength moves that may help keep you independent and strong? Take the Functional Movement online learning course from Renew. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can learn more here. Not a member? Learn more here