• 6 Safe, Simple Exercises Older Adults Can Do on Their Own

    Safe and Simple Exercises for Older Adults

    Social distancing is meant to keep our loved ones and us safe by reducing our chances of getting COVID-19. Unfortunately, there are unintended consequences that can occur as a result of isolation, especially for older adults who live in senior communities, assisted living facilities, or skilled nursing facilities.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus recommendations have resulted in the cancellation of community dining and group activities for residents of these facilities. As residents stay in their rooms more and miss opportunities for group exercise classes or other events they typically enjoy, they may not be getting the physical activity they need.

    Muscle disuse results in loss of muscle strength at the rate of around 12% a week. An article in the Journal of Physiology found that just two weeks of inactivity causes a loss of strength in older adults that can be difficult for them to regain.

    On the other hand, physical activity and exercise can prevent this decline, and also have many benefits for older adults. A recent study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that physical activity can improve function in older adults.

    In addition to improving quality of life, physical activity:

    • Slows the physical changes due to aging.
    • Optimizes body composition.
    • Supports mental and cognitive health.
    • Increases life span.
    • Reduces the risk for falls that can result in injury, hospital stays, or even death.
    • Can help lower the risk of developing chronic diseases.
    • Helps people who have chronic disease manage their health.


    Physical therapists are health care’s movement experts who improve quality of life through prescribed exercise, hands-on care, and patient education. PTs treat people of all ages and abilities and empower them to take part in their own care. When indicated, physical therapists are still able to visit their patients in most cases, but it’s important that older adults whether under the care of a PT or not, do all they can on their own to maintain their strength.

    Exercise can be very helpful for the aging body. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services guidelines, adults aged 65 and older should do at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity five days a week and also should work on muscle-strengthening activities two days a week. A taskforce report in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association made additional recommendations to help older adults living in long-term care facilities achieve physical activity benefits.

    People with limitations due to preexisting conditions should consult with a doctor or physical therapist and be as physically active as their abilities allow. 

    The following short exercise program is designed for older adults to stay active and safe until the quarantine is over so that they can maintain as much independence as possible.

    Six Exercises for Older Adults During Quarantine

    Note: This program is designed for older adults who are not at risk for overexertion or injury during exercise. If you experience pain while doing any of these exercises or have any questions, consult your doctor or physical therapist.

    In-Bed Exercises

    1. Lower body: hip bridges.

    Directions: While lying on your back in bed, bend your knees, and put your feet flat on the bed. Push up through your feet to get your buttocks off the bed. Hold your buttocks lifted off the bed for three seconds. Gently lower yourself back down and repeat 10 times.

    2. Lower body: ankle pumps.

    Directions: While lying in bed and your legs out straight, focus on moving your ankle. Slowly move your ankle up, so your big toe is pointed toward your nose. Then, slowly bring your ankle down, like you’re stepping on a gas pedal. Repeat 20 times on each side.

    3. Upper body: arm Ts.

    Directions: Lay on your back in bed with your knees bent or straight and your head facing the ceiling. Put your arms out straight to either side, like you are making a T with your body. Keeping your arms straight, slowly bring your hands together to meet in the middle and give yourself a high-five. Slowly lower your arms to the bed. Repeat 20 times.

    Seated Exercises

    These exercises can be done while seated in a chair with back support, or seated on the edge of the bed or chair for those who are able.

    4. Lower body: kicks.

    Directions: While sitting upright with your knees bent, slowly straighten one leg. Straighten the leg, so your foot is off the ground when your leg is straight. Slowly bend the knee back to the starting position. Repeat 20 times on each side.

    5. Lower body: thigh squeezes.

    Directions: Find an object such as a folded towel or pillow. Sit down with bent knees, feet flat on the floor, and put the object between your thighs. Gently squeeze the object with your legs, holding the squeeze for five seconds. Slowly release the squeeze and repeat 20 times.

    6. Upper body: arm circles.

    Directions: While seated, focus on sitting up tall. Open your arms out to your side with your elbows straight, forming a T shape with your arms. Draw small circles with your hands, moving your arms from your shoulder. Repeat 20 times forward and 20 times backward.

    COVID-19 has caused many changes to life for everyone, but doing what you can to maintain your body until you can get back to the activities that you enjoy will help. Keep moving now with this safe, simple home exercise program, so you’ll still be grooving after the pandemic. Medicine can sometimes add days to life, but being physically active can add life to our days. A physical therapist can help.

    Authored by Kylie E. Roberts, SPT, in memory of her grandmother, who died due to COVID-19. Reviewed by Pradeep Rapalli, PT, MBA, board-certified clinical specialist in geriatric physical therapy and certified expert in exercising aging adults, on behalf of APTA’s Academy of Geriatric Physical Therapy.

    Additional Resources

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