Best Functional Exercises for Seniors: ADL Movement Fitness

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We all get older and, for many of us, physical activity becomes a bit more difficult along this road. But if we continue to move our bodies, we can stay active for far longer. Here are some of the best functional exercises for seniors, or anyone wishing to maintain mobility, stay strong, and keep their independence.

What is functional fitness for seniors?

When we talk about functional fitness workouts for seniors, we don’t mean high-impact cardio training sessions, traditional weight lifting exercise, or even exercise that requires gym equipment or even a gym membership for that matter.

Functional exercise is exactly what it says on the tin, meaning that we move our bodies in the way that they are meant to move. Our bodies consist of parts that bend, twist, rotate, and hinge, so the idea of functional exercise is to maintain these moving parts through natural movements.

Activities of daily living, or “ADL exercises” is a phrase that is often used to describe functional mobility exercises for elderly people, but it’s actually relevant to everyone. ADL movements can be mimicked by the repetition of different exercises that target the muscles and joints that perform these actions that many of us take for granted.

For example, walking up a flight of stairs, reaching for something on a high shelf, picking up something from the floor, and even getting out of bed are things that most of us are faced with as part of everyday life. If we work the muscles that enable us to perform these actions, we will not only maintain the function but it can be improved too.

By engaging in functional fitness and strength training exercises we can become more able to perform everyday activities, perform daily tasks that require these muscle groups, and maintain our muscular and skeletal function much better.

One of the most important aspects of functional fitness is understanding which muscle groups and joints of the body are responsible for each activity, this is an ongoing process that’s best developed by actually performing activities like the ones mentioned in this post.

Best functional exercises for seniors (home ADL exercise routine)

Best functional exercises for seniors

We’ve put together an exercise program that you can perform with minimal equipment. This routine will benefit everyone who is specifically looking to perform functional exercises at home, regardless of age and ability.

These exercises can be performed as sets of timed movements, meaning each exercise is performed continually for a set amount of time, 20, 30, 40 seconds, etc. Or they can be performed as a set of a number of reps. I would suggest for beginners, that the sets and reps method is the way to go, and timed sets can be explored later.

3 sets of 10 reps for each exercise is a good start, but this can be increased as you progress. The next progression is to increase the workload to 15 reps. This can be done by progression on single exercises that develop quickly or it can be a general rule applied to the whole workout.

Functional exerciseVariationGood forSets and reps
Wall push upsChest openingChest strength & shoulder mobility3 sets of 10 reps
Bodyweight squatsChair squatsLeg strength, stability, and mobility3 sets of 10 reps
Step upsSingle leg balanceLower body mobility and stamina3 sets of 10 reps
Object liftGood morningsLeg, back strength & hip & knee mobility3 sets of 10 reps
Overhead reachLateral raisesShoulder strength and mobility3 sets of 10 reps
Cat cow stretchSpinal roll downBack & abdominal mobility3 sets of 10 reps
Tricep extensionN/ARear, upper arm strength3 sets of 10 reps
Bicep curlN/AFront, upper arm strength3 sets of 10 reps

How often should you exercise? Well this is dictated by the individual’s circumstance, but generally speaking, training 3 times per week is a good entry-level goal, but performing these exercises every day is very viable for many.

Whatever you decide, you should always consult your physical therapist or medical professional before you start as there may be certain movements that your circumstance will not align well with.

Although this routine can be performed by anyone, certain exercises can be picked out and used regularly as functional exercises for older adults who find it difficult to complete the full workout.

This exercise routine is generalized after all, so if something is not possible for your ability, it can be overlooked.

Next, we’ll look at how to perform each of these exercises, but if you want a more in-depth guide I would suggest taking a look at my book on functional fitness for seniors on Amazon:

How these functional exercises for older adults are performed

Functional fitness exercises for seniors are about encouraging body movements through range of motion to stimulate muscles and maintain or improve joint movement. Let’s go through the exercises listed in the workout plan, and describe how to perform them correctly. It’s always worth practicing the exercises before jumping into a full workout.

Wall push ups

Wall push ups are an exercise to Increase the range of movement in the shoulder, elbows, and wrists whilst strengthening the chest and tricep muscles. This is the first progression in the development of a full push up, but it targets the same muscle groups and has the same joint movements.

How to do wall push ups:

Wall push ups
  • Stand with a solid wall in front of you so your toes are an inch or two away, with your feet shoulder-width apart
  • Place your hands flat on the wall so they are in line with your mid-chest
  • Take a step back from the wall keeping your hands in contact with the wall. The further you move your feet away from the wall, the more challenging the exercise
  • Your arms should be straight, with a slight bend in the elbows at this point
  • Once in position and as you inhale, lower your upper body towards the wall by bending at the elbows. Your elbows should not flare out to the sides too much.
  • Aim to touch the wall with your nose, but keep your back flat throughout the movement
  • Once at the top of the movement, return to the start position as you exhale by using your arms to push your body away from the wall

Variation: chest opening

Chest opening is a slight variation of this exercise in that it does not require load-bearing or elbow function. This makes it an excellent choice as one of your functional rehabilitation exercises, for recovery from a shoulder injury. It will allow a range of motion to be developed through the chest muscles, shoulder joints, and wrists. This is a great exercise for most people, as it works to guard against rounded shoulders and also has the added benefit of bicep and forearm flexibility.

How to do chest opening:

Chest opening

You can perform this exercise from a seated or standing position.

  • Sit or stand with your back flat and abs engaged
  • Lift your arms so they are straight out in front of you, parallel to the floor, and palms facing down
  • As you exhale, slowly and with control, pull your arms back, keeping them straight, whilst rotating your wrists to position your palms upwards
  • Hold the top position for a few seconds before returning to the starting position

Bodyweight squats

Any variation of the squats exercise strengthens the leg muscles with a high focus on the quads. Bodyweight squats are particularly beneficial to those who don’t have access to a gym, and it is an excellent exercise to develop the ability to perform a part of your regular training routine. Squats that are done correctly and with a good range of motion also target the glutes (butt). During this movement, the knee joints are used along with the hips and the lower back is also engaged. This is a big movement that targets multiple muscle groups.

How to do bodyweight squats:

Bodyweight squats
  • Stand straight, with your feet about shoulder-width apart and toes slightly turned out
  • Place your arms out in front of you or cross them in front of your chest
  • Slowly bend your knees to lower your body towards the floor as you squat down
  • Ensure your back is flat and your knees do not track to either side
  • Aim to squat to the point that your upper legs are parallel to the floor
  • Once at the top of the movement, return to the start position

Variation: Chair squats

Full bodyweight squats can be tricky for a lot of people due to a lack of strength in the glutes and quads to perform a full squat. it’s also common to lack confidence in balance when attempting to perform a deep squat. In these situations, chair squats are one of those exercises to help with progression. We can use chair squats to work on strengthening the muscles and to gain confidence in order to progress to a full bodyweight squat. Use this variation of squats until you are confident that it’s not necessary to perform with a chair anymore, then try and squat that little bit lower.

How to do a chair squat:

Chair squats
  • Stand in front of a sturdy chair with your feet spaced about shoulder-width apart
  • Your body position should be exactly the same as if you were setting up for a full bodyweight squat
  • Bend at the knees and lower your body towards the chair as if you were going to sit down
  • Just before your glutes touch the chair, hold the position for a second or two before returning to the start position

Note that the chair is only there as a guide so you should not actually sit down!

Step ups

Step ups are one of the more dynamic functional movement exercises for seniors, as it’s a continuous, multi-muscle movement to strengthen the lower legs and glutes and it’s one of the best exercises to target the same muscles that are used to walk up a flight of stairs. It’s also worth knowing that there are other muscles being used in this movement that will benefit from the exercise, such as the hip flexors and lower back, so it’s a great exercise to perform regularly.

If you live in a house with stairs, you can use the first step on the flight to perform the exercise, or you can find any other sturdy surface you can step on and off safely.

When performing this exercise and counting reps, it’s important to note that one rep is counted only when you have returned to the start position with both feet firmly on the ground. If you are using the first step on a flight of stairs, it may also be tempting to hold the banister for support. When getting used to this, it’s ok, but try to move away from this to maximize strength and balance progression.

How to do step ups

Step ups
  • Choose a sturdy step to work on and stand so your toes are several inches away from the foot of the step
  • Keep your head in a neutral position and your back flat as you lift one foot and step up onto the surface
  • Once your foot is firmly placed on the step, transfer your weight to the mid part of this foot
  • Follow this movement with your trailing leg until you are standing in the start position on top of the step
  • Reverse the process starting with returning your leading foot to the floor first

Variation: Single leg balance

The single leg balance is actually the first part of the step ups exercise and as such, even though it’s a single movement, developing the ability to perform this exercise will help with all types of common activities. If step ups are difficult due to balance or hip and knee mobility, this can be used to build up to the full step-ups.

How to do single leg balance

Single leg balance
  • Stand with your back flat, legs straight but knees slightly bent. (We do not want to lock our supporting knee out as this will put pressure on the knee joint and take the workload from the quads and development will be drastically diluted)
  • Feet should be about hip-width apart and arms can be out to your sides slightly to aid with balance
  • Slowly shift your weight to your supporting foot and slowly lift the other foot off the floor by bending at the knee and flexing the hip
  • Raise this foot until your quad (upper leg) is parallel to the floor (This is the ideal range of motion, but it can be developed from a smaller lift)
  • Once at the top of the movement, hold for several seconds before slowly returning to the start position
  • Repeat on the opposite leg

Object lift

The object lift is a great functional movement exercise for seniors as it follows the same principles as a deadlift, which is basically picking up something from the floor safely whilst also strengthening several muscle groups. It is a big movement, but Instead of using a weightlifting bar, we can use any household object that has even weight distribution and is easy to grip, a small dumbbell will also work. Whilst getting used to this exercise, we can also use an imaginary object and even perform the movement without using a full range in order to work up to the full movement over time.

How to do an object lift:

Object lift
  • Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart with the object mid-way between your feet
  • Your back should be flat, your head in a neutral position, and your knees slightly bent
  • As you exhale, bend at the knees as if performing a squat
  • Once your upper legs (quads) are parallel with the floor, bend forward at the hips, keeping your back flat
  • Reach to grip the object and reverse the movement keeping the object close to your body
  • Your back should remain flat throughout the movement

Variation: Good mornings

Good mornings are a fairly advanced exercise as it requires concentration and control. The idea is to engage the legs and lower body but to also strengthen and engage the lower back.

Learning this movement will prepare the same muscle groups for a deadlift or object lift.

How to do good mornings:

Goog mornings
  • Stand with your feet and knees about shoulder width apart and arms held out in front of you, palms down
  • As you inhale, bend at the knees to push your glutes backward slightly
  • As you start to bend at the knees, you should also hinge at the hips bringing your upper body to about a 45-degree angle to the floor
  • During the movement, ensure that your arms remain out in front of you for balance
  • Once at the top of the movement, reverse the process as you exhale

Overhead reach

This is probably one of the best functional reaching activities to engage the shoulder muscles and promote the range of movement in this area. Although an overhead reach relies on the shoulder joint and muscles connected to it, there is less call for performing this movement in normal daily tasks when compared to things like walking up a flight of steps or standing up from a seated position. This is why I always advise that this is an important exercise for everyone in order to maintain and improve mobility and strength in the shoulder.

How to do the overhead reach:

Overhead reach
  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart, back flat, and head in a neutral position
  • Keep your upper arms close to the sides of your body
  • Make fists with your hands and bend your elbows to bring your fists in line with your chin, palms facing forward
  • As you exhale, push your fists directly above your head
  • When you are nearly at the top of the movement, stretch up to bring your hands together
  • Slowly return to the starting position

Variation: Lateral raises

Lateral raises are an isolation exercise to strengthen the deltoids (shoulders) that can be performed either seated or standing. This exercise will work in conjunction with overhead reach, but from a functional point of view, overhead reach is far superior.

How to do lateral raises:

Lateral raises
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, back flat, head in a neutral position, and arms straight by your sides, palms facing in
  • As you exhale, lift your arms out to your sides ensuring that they stay in line with your body (not tracking forward or backward
  • Continue the movement until your arms are at around a 45-degree angle to the floor
  • Once at the top of the movement, hold the position for a few seconds, then as you inhale, return to the start position

Cat cow stretch

the cat cow stretch is regarded by many as a yoga or Pilates movement, but it is great for strength and mobility of the lower back and abdominal muscles. It is a double movement that should be performed slowly and with control. Cat cow is also one of the more common functional physical therapy exercises given to patients with lower back pain by physiotherapists.

How to do cat cow:

Cat cow stretch
  • Position yourself so you are on all fours. Knees, toes, and palms should be in contact with the floor
  • At the start position, your back should be flat and your head in a neutral position
  • “Cat” – As you drop your chin to your chin towards your upper chest, slowly round your back to flex your spine whilst tucking your hips forward
  • Once at the top of the movement, you should have a good arch and flexion through your entire back
  • Once at the top of “cat”, slowly lower to the start position
  • “Cow” – As you lift your head to look upwards, you should lower your abdomen towards the floor by extending your entire back
  • Once at the top of “cow”, slowly return to the starting position

Variation: spinal roll down

The spinal roll down is an excellent way to not only maintain or increase the range of movement through the entire back, but it is a great way to develop a “mind, muscle” connection with our backs, which can be very beneficial for many ADL movements. This exercise is also one that can be practiced with a partial range of movement as it is performed in stages.

An example of this is the first part where we dip our chin to our neck/ upper chest, this engages the neck muscles and upper part of the spine. Keeping our knees only slightly bent will also help to develop the range of movement in the hamstrings.

How to do a spinal roll down:

Spinal roll down
  • Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, back flat, and looking forward
  • Keep a slight bend in your knees throughout the movement
  • Bring your chin to your upper chest by bending forward with your neck
  • Slowly continue the movement by bending the upper part of your spine forward
  • Slowly continue the movement by bending the mid part of your spine forward
  • Continue to bend your lower back until you reach the top of the movement
  • You can reach down with your hands but keep your knee bent as per the start of the movement
  • Once you are at the top of the movement, reverse the process slowly and under control

Tricep extension

Tricep extension is an isolation exercise that targets the back of the upper arm. This is a movement that you can add to your daily workout program, but I would advise that it does not get prioritized over other exercises as it only uses one joint (the elbow). Any push up variation also uses the triceps as synergists.

How to do tricep extension:

Tricep extension
  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart
  • Take a step forward with either foot and bend at the knees slightly to give you a stable stance
  • Engage your core muscles and hinge forward at the hips slightly
  • Lift your upper arms so your elbows are higher than your back
  • Make fists with your hands and ensure your palms are facing inwards throughout the movement
  • As you exhale, bend your arms at the elbow until they are just about to lock out. Your upper arms should stay fixed
  • Once at the top of the movement, return to the start position

Bicep curl

There are several variations of a bicep curl, but from a “functional ” point of view, there is only one movement, and that is to close the gap between the lower arm and upper arm by bending the elbow. Like tricep extension, this exercise should not be prioritized over other big movements as the biceps are a synergist in other upper body exercises.

How to do bicep curl:

Bicep curl
  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and back flat
  • Engage your core muscles and make fists with your hands. Your palms should be facing forward and your arms should be straight by your sides
  • Roll your shoulders back
  • As you exhale, keep your upper arms fixed and bend your elbows to contract your biceps
  • Once at the top of the movement, inhale and return to the starting position

Some final points on functional training for seniors

So we’ve seen how to perform several movements with good form and some alternatives for use as a progression towards them. I hope that this post has also given an insight into the mindset that is best applied to this type of training. It’s all about moving in the way the body was designed to move. If we use it, we won’t lose it.

It’s important to also remember that regular exercise of this nature won’t just help you maintain movement, but it will improve circulation, balance, muscle function, strength, and confidence, and will make you feel stronger and more stable in general.

If this post has been interesting or useful and you would like to dive a bit deeper into the subject, I have written a more in-depth and detailed guide. You can check out my book on Functional exercises for seniors here.

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