What if there were a park bench where you could sit and visit with your 70-year-old self? What a fascinating conversation you might have. You might talk at first about your family and career, but eventually the conversation would probably turn to quality of life. The ability to enjoy life to the greatest extent possible is a concern for many elders. As we age, our fitness level, perhaps more than any other factor, directly determines our freedom to live independently.
If we are to squeeze the most potential out of our lives, we need to be strong, fit, and flexible. Unfortunately, as the years fly by, our bodies stiffen, we lose mobility, and key muscle groups atrophy. The truth is that we are working against the tide; if we do nothing now to protect our capabilities, we predictably will lose not only our physical functionality but also our ability to interact with our families, enjoy the outdoors, and live with dignity as we continue to age. I suspect your inner septuagenarian would encourage you to stay active and to diligently invest in certain movements and strengthening exercises so you can live a vibrant and active seventh decade and beyond.
Your future you is well-aware of the stats on senior health. Spills and falls leading to hip fractures, concussions, muscle injuries, and prolonged bed-rest are commonplace in the deconditioned elderly. Balance, coordination, flexibility, and strength are more valuable commodities than a fat retirement portfolio. The problem is that by the time these failings start to occur, it is increasingly difficult to reverse the changes. The time to invest is now. Your inner elder would whisper in your ear, “Move. Flex. Build for the future!” This admonition isn’t necessarily meant so you can someday skydive or a hit a moguls run (although that might be part of it), but so that you can travel, lug bags of garden soil, reach your top shelf, live independently, and relish a life that is adventure-filled and exciting.
There are many exercise options available to both young and old. But functional fitness—performing specific movements that bolster your ability to operate under typical daily demands—is where you want to focus. Below are four integral movements to help you stay strong and flexible, so that you can lead an active and fulfilling life into your seventies and beyond.
Four Functional Moves For Your Inner Elder
SIDE PLANKS: What if, at 70, you could easily rise up off the floor, recover from a stumble without falling, and engage your abdominal muscles so effectively that you were free of back pain? Building a bulletproof core takes years of attention and consistency, and yet the core is one of the first functional muscle groups to disengage when neglected. Your core is the quartermaster of the whole postural stabilization system; if it is weak or imbalanced, everything else suffers. Side planks engage deep-core musculature and also strengthen your shoulders and gluteal muscles. They are excellent for recruiting your key postural muscles—in particular, the Quadratus Lumborum muscles, which help stabilize the lower back.
1) Start by lying on your side with your feet together, with one forearm directly below your shoulder, propping you up.
2) Engage your core and raise your hips until your body is in a straight line from head to feet.
3) Hold this position (without letting your hips drop) for the allotted time for each set, and then repeat on the other side.
4) Aim for 30 seconds when starting out, with an eventual goal of one minute per side. Shoot for three sets daily.
JUMPING JACKS: As we age, the range of motion in our shoulders, our sense of balance, and our cardiovascular ability can all decline significantly. Few functional strength exercises simultaneously incorporate coordination-focused and cardiovascular elements. So your inner septuagenarian really hopes you’ll perform the jumping jack, because it improves lower-body strength, promotes greater upper-body range of motion, and challenges balance while also raising heart rate. It’s like multi-tasking fitness!
1) Stand on a flat surface with your legs together, arms at your sides.
2) Bend your knees and hop so that your feet are shoulder-width apart.
3) At the same time, make a wide arc with your arms until they meet above your head.
4) Finish the exercise by jumping back to the starting position (feet together and arms down).
5) Complete 30-50 jacks per session.
6) Variations: Try a jumping jack while holding light dumbbells, or increase your speed.
SQUATS: Climbing out of a car, getting up from the toilet, and arising from the couch are daily movements many of us take for granted. For an elder, these movements can mean the difference between living in one’s own home or moving to an assisted-living facility. The squatting movement might be the most important for maintaining functional independence into one’s later years. A basic squat routine can significantly extend one’s ability to call the shots and maneuver through daily life without assistance.
1) Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
2) Toes should be externally rotated at a 20-30 degree angle.
3) Lower your buttocks by bending at the knees into a squat position.
4) Be sure not to extend your knees too far over your ankles. Your knee-glute angle should roughly parallel your head-lumbar spine angle.
5) Put your arms straight out in front to help you balance.
6) Slowly return to the standing position by squeezing your glute muscles.
7) Variations: Close your eyes and perform the exercise. Add weight with a dumbbell or barbell balanced across your shoulders. A more advanced variation to try is the pistol squat, with one leg stretched out in front of you as you descend into the squat.
OVERHEAD BALL-THROW: As a chiropractor, I frequently observe a singular type of spinal deterioration in the elderly, particularly in men: the loss of the lumbar curve. As a result of this lost curvature, patients demonstrate decreased ability to extend their lower spine. Loss of lower-back flexibility has the trickle-down effects of weakening the core, placing undue stress on the hip- and low-back musculature, and driving postural distortions further up the spine that can result in cognitive decline. Becoming that hunched, bent-over elder is not just a problem of aesthetics; it can impact your whole physiology. Immobility and loss of power in the shoulders are also common problems for the elderly. A senior’s inability to reach for dishes on a high shelf, or to lift luggage into an overhead bin, is typically a direct result of this loss of strength and movement in the shoulder. The overhead ball-throw addresses these problems, as well as engaging the core, lumbar flexibility, and upper- and lower-body power. This ball-throw is one of the most multifunctional exercises you can perform.
1) Stand holding a medicine- or power ball of low-to-moderate weight. (You should be able to easily lift this ball overhead.)
2) Take a step forward as you raise the ball overhead.
3) Using power and momentum, drive the ball from above your head into a wall (“wall balls”), or hurl the ball onto the ground in front of you.
4) Squat to retrieve the ball, then repeat.
5) Perform at least ten repetitions. Alternate your forward leg after five repetitions.
Being fit and active in your later years is more easily achievable than you might think. With the implementation of a few functional movements and an eye toward the needs of your inner elder, you can look forward to a full and active later-life experience.
1) Rothschild JM, Bates DW, Leape LL. “Preventable Medical Injuries In Older Patients.” Arch Intern Med 160.18 (2000): 2717-2728. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/485472
2) “Side Plank: The Best Abs Move You’re (Probably) Not Doing.” Coach Magazine. Dennis Publishing, 2017. Web.
4) “How to Squat with Proper Form: The Definitive Guide.” Stronglifts. Stronglifts, Ltd., 30 July 2017. Web.