10 Chair Exercises for Seniors

It's Never Too Late to Start Strength Training

There's no denying that structural and functional deterioration of the human body occurs with age. It takes one look around a nursing home or a hospital to recognize that there's truth to this statement.

That said, the American College of Sports Medicine's 2009 Position Stand, "Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults," cites significant evidence to support the use of physical activity and exercise interventions in older adults as a means to reduce the risk of chronic disease, increase life expectancy, preserve functional capacity (the ability to perform activities of daily living, such as cooking and cleaning), and improve measures of physical health that combat the effects of aging. These positive benefits are seen across all populations of older adults—active and inactive, those in good health and those managing chronic health conditions—as long as fitness level is taken into account when developing a program. 

The takeaway is that it's never too late to start an exercise program and reap the benefits of physical activity. That said, you probably don't want to enroll your 85-year-old grandmother in Barry's Bootcamp or Soul Cycle if she's experienced functional declines in health that have made her seem frail or a little wobbly on her feet. For senior citizens who've lost a step or two in their later years, or who are battling the effects of chronic pain or disability due to injury or health condition, there are accessible exercise options that can improve strength, cardiovascular health, mobility, and balance, all from the comfort of a sturdy chair. Consider the following 10 exercises as a good place to start. 

1
Ankle and Wrist Rolls

Many senior citizens struggle with poor circulation through the extremities, which can contribute to challenges with balance and mobility. KJ Landis, a personal trainer, and wellness workshop facilitator suggests "waking up" the hands and feet through a series of lower-intensity moves before diving into more rigorous exercises. 

  • Sit tall on a sturdy chair, so your back is straight and is not leaning against the chair back. 
  • Flex your fingers, opening and closing your fists several times before making fists and rolling your wrists 10 times in each direction.
  • Perform the same exercises with your feet. First, flex and point each foot independently as you simultaneously curl and straighten your toes.
  • One at a time, roll each ankle to the outside 10 times, then one at a time, roll each ankle to the inside 10 times.

2
Single-Leg Calf Raises

Landis also takes older adults through a series of chair-based alternating calf raises to increase strength and mobility through the lower leg. 

  • Sitting tall in a chair with feet planted flat on the floor about hip-distance apart, engage your core and look straight ahead. 
  • Start with the right foot and lift your heel from the ground as high as you can, trying to raise up as high as you can on your toes, engaging the calf as you perform the exercise. Lower the heel back to the floor and repeat to complete a set of 10 repetitions.
  • Repeat the movement with the left leg. 
  • Perform three sets of 10 reps per leg. 

After performing the initial sets, add two more sets of 10 repetitions, this time lifting both heels simultaneously. At the end of the last set, hold the heels lifted from the floor for 20 seconds.

3
Sit-and-Stands

sit to stand chair exercise
Ben Queenborough / Getty Images

It's easy to take sitting and standing for granted as a younger adult, but older adults often struggle to stand up from low chairs or from soft couches. According to personal trainer and group fitness instructor, Jill McKay, the founder of Narrow Road Fitness, sit-and-stands are an excellent precursor to squats that can help seniors gain or maintain the ability to get in and out of chairs independently, improving leg strength, functional balance, and control.

The sit-and-stand is just what it sounds like.

  • Start seated in a sturdy chair, feet planted on the floor about hip-distance apart.
  • Using as little assistance from hands or arms as possible, engage your core, and tip forward from the hips. 
  • Press your weight through all four corners of your feet and push yourself to stand, extending your knees and hips fully. 
  • Reverse the movement, pressing your hips back and bending your knees to carefully lower yourself to the seated position. 

If you can't press all the way to a standing position, simply shift your weight forward and lift your glutes an inch or two from the chair seat and hold for a second before lowering back down. Over time, work on developing the strength and balance necessary to come to a standing position.

4
Seated Hip Marches

For those who need to improve flexibility and mobility through the hips, or who need a modified option for performing cardiovascular exercise, seated hip marches are a good choice. Monica Lam-Feist, an ACE-certified personal trainer and the fitness lead at AlgaeCal, offers the following tips for performing the exercise.

  • Sit tall on a sturdy chair, your feet flat on the floor, hip-distance apart. 
  • Grasp the edges or armrests of the chair with both hands and engage your abdominal muscles to help keep your torso tall. 
  • LIft your right leg with your knee bent as high as you comfortably can, as though doing a high-knee march. 
  • Lower your right foot to the floor with control.
  • Repeat to the opposite side.

Perform at least 20 alternating marches in succession. Take a break, then repeat two to three more times. This exercise can be continued for a more cardiovascular effect, or it can be incorporated into a warm-up to help raise the heart rate and get the blood flowing before performing more strength-focused movements.

5
Heel Slides

McKay uses heel slides with her older clients as a type of modified hamstring curl designed to help strengthen the large muscles spanning the back of the thigh between the glutes and the knees. Because core engagement is required, the exercise can also develop abdominal strength.

  • Sit tall in a sturdy chair, with knees bent and feet flat on the floor about hip-distance apart. 
  • Extend the right leg and flex the right foot, so the heel remains in contact with the ground, but the toes are pointing up toward the ceiling. 
  • Engage your glutes and hamstrings, using these muscle groups to drag your right heel back toward the chair while it remains in contact with the floor. 
  • Reverse the movement and slide your heel away from you, extending your right knee. Perform 10 to 12 repetitions on one side before switching legs. 
  • Complete two to three sets per leg. 

While this exercise can be done without any special equipment, you may want to use a paper plate or a small towel to make it easier for the heel to slide across the floor.

6
Seated Shoulder Press

seated shoulder press
Ben Queenborough / Getty Images

McKay points out that it's important to incorporate strength-training exercises that easily translate to functional daily activities. "Overhead arm raises with or without weights are a great way to practice putting items away on shelves or in overhead bins," she says. In addition to developing strength, this type of overhead lifting movement takes the shoulders through a full range of motion which is helpful for maintaining flexibility through the shoulders. 

Use lightweight dumbbells, water bottles, canned goods, or resistance bands to perform this exercise. If you're using a resistance band, select a long, flat band and secure it in place by sitting on top of the center of the band before grasping each end to perform the exercise. 

  • Sit tall in a sturdy chair, your feet flat on the ground about shoulder-distance apart. 
  • Hold a light dumbbell or the end of a resistance band in each hand at your shoulders, your elbows bent and your palms facing away from you. 
  • Press your arms straight up overhead, extending your elbows. 
  • Carefully lower your hands back to the starting position. 
  • Complete two to three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

7
Seated Torso Twists

chair exercises spinal twist
SilviaJansen / Getty Images

According to Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer and a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics, the seated torso twist engages the core, particularly the obliques, while also encouraging spinal mobility. 

  • Sit tall, your feet flat on the ground about hip-distance apart. Make sure you don't lean back in the chair.  
  • Place your hands lightly behind your head, your elbows bent and pointing out toward the sides of the room.
  • Keeping your pelvis steady, exhale and twist your torso to the right as far as you comfortably can. 
  • Inhale and return to center, keeping your hips stable. 
  • Exhale and twist your torso to the left as far as you comfortably can. 
  • Inhale and return to center. 
  • Continue until you've twisted to each side between six and eight times. Rest, then perform a second set.

8
Modified Leg Lifts

Landis suggests older adults perform a type of chair-based modified leg lift to improve their core strength. While it's best to use a sturdy chair with armrests for this move, you can also perform the exercise while gripping the edges of the chair beside your hips. 

  • Sit tall in a chair, your core engaged, your feet together and flat on the floor. Roll your shoulders back to maintain perfect posture.
  • Hold the chair's armrests or grip the chair's seat. Keeping your feet and knees together, lift both legs as high as you can (with knees bent) as you exhale. 
  • Hold for five seconds, then lower your feet back to the floor. 
  • Perform 10 to 12 repetitions and complete a total of three to five sets.

9
Modified Planks

Planks aren't just good for young people. This static exercise develops core stability and strength through the entire front half of the body. The challenge, of course, is that some older adults can't effectively support their body's full weight while maintaining proper form. However, McKay suggests a simple chair modification to make the move accessible. 

Position the chair in front of a wall so the chair is stable and won't slide or move as you're performing the plank. You can position the chair so the seat is facing the wall, providing you with access to the back of the chair for support, or you can position the chair so the back is facing the wall, providing you with access to the seat of the chair for support. Adults with lower levels of strength or mobility should start by using the back of the chair for support. 

  • Once the chair is secure against the wall, place your hands on the back of the chair (or on the seat, depending on the chair's position) so your hands are shoulder-distance apart. 
  • Engage your core and step your feet backward until your body forms a straight diagonal line from your heels to your head. Your arms should be perfectly straight, your hips should be perfectly aligned between your knees and your shoulders, and you should feel your abdominals working to keep your body steady. 
  • Hold the position for 10 to 60 seconds before returning to standing. 
  • Complete three sets, holding each plank for as long as you can while maintaining good form.

10
Modified Burpees

"Yes, I have 70-year olds doing burpees!" says McKay, who firmly believes in keeping her clients of all ages challenged. The trick, of course, is making age- and ability-appropriate modifications. Strict burpees may not be accessible to most older adults, but depending on strength and mobility, they may be perfectly safe with modifications. For instance, consider working through a burpee as follows: 

  • Push a sturdy chair against a wall so the back is to the wall and the chair isn't at risk of sliding or moving. 
  • Stand facing the chair, feet roughly shoulder-distance apart. 
  • Press your hips back and bend your knees to enter a half-squat position. 
  • Place both hands firmly on the chair's seat, arms fully extended and palms aligned under the shoulders.
  • Step one foot, then the other, behind you, so your body forms a straight line from heels to head in a modified chair plank position. 
  • Reverse the movement and step each foot forward to their starting position. 
  • Press through your feet and extend your knees and hips as you rise to standing. As you do, lift your arms over your head, clapping your hands together. 
  • This counts as a single modified chair burpee. Perform as many as you can (aim for six to 10) with perfect form. Complete two to three sets. 

Source:

American College of Sports Medicine, Chodzko-Zaiko WJ, Proctor DN, Fiatarone Singh MA, Minson CT, Nigg CR, Salem GJ, Skinner JS. "American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults." Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181a0c95c. July 2009.