13 Leg Strengthening Exercises for Seniors & The Elderly

Two elderly people on mats.

After the age of 40, muscle mass and strength weaken. This means we can perform less and less physical activity. Over the age of 50, strength loss increases by 15% after each decade. Muscles start to atrophy when they aren’t being used. Meaning if you don’t use it, you lose it. Sarcopenia is the biggest cause of this disability in older adults. Sarcopenia is a phenomenon that occurs in our muscles when calcium begins to leak from the ryanodine receptor channel complex. These are a group of proteins in our muscle cells. The more calcium we lose, the weaker our muscles get. The best way to minimize this problem is, you guessed it, strength training! We will focus particularly on leg exercises for seniors and why they are important.

Why Should Seniors Exercise? 

Of course, everyone knows that exercising improves your quality of life. But as we get older, exercise becomes increasingly necessary. The longer you stay healthy and active, the longer you will be able to retain your independence. Combining aerobic activity and strength training is the best thing you can do to promote your health. 

Strength training of the lower body is especially important because your legs are the balance and support system for the rest of the body. Having strong leg muscles is vital when you stand up from a chair and climb stairs. And having good balance in your legs lowers the risk of falls. Falls account for 30 to 40% of injuries in the elderly. They are so common among seniors that an older adult is admitted to the hospital every 11 seconds due to a fall. And, a senior dies every 19 minutes due to a fall. Not only are falls extremely deadly, even a minor one can be debilitating. It can lead you or your loved one into a long downward spiral of degrading health. It is unrealistic that you will be able to completely prevent senior falls. However, regular exercise reduces that risk factor by 23%. 

Not only will exercise reduce your risk of falls, but you will have more energy, lose weight, prevent and counteract disease, and improve the functioning of your brain. Exercising regularly reduces your risk of getting Alzheimer’s disease by a whopping 50%. And, keeping the weight off helps your joints not to be overburdened. This prevents osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis. It occurs when the cartilage that protects your bones begins to wear out over time. So let’s keep those legs moving!

Exercises for Seniors to Avoid 

Before we get into some of the best leg exercises for seniors, we briefly want to touch on what exercises seniors should avoid. Please remember that a good portion of popular exercises we see in the gym are not meant for the elderly. Most hardcore exercises are meant for younger adults who want to lose weight and gain muscle. Since older adults have issues with joint pain, poor balance, poor posture, and deteriorating muscles, these exercises are not ideal. An elderly person could easily become injured. A few leg exercises for seniors to avoid are:

  • Leg press
  • Squats with weight
  • Long-distance running
  • Rock climbing
  • HIIT (high-intensity interval training)

Getting Started

So you or your loved one are motivated to start an exercise program. Or perhaps you are a live-in caregiver who wants to motivate your client. We honor and admire your courage to make a change. However, you must keep in mind that results do not come quickly. You must be patient as seeing results takes time. Ease into it. It usually takes about 4 weeks to see results after you start exercising regularly. Your strength and endurance will increase gradually. Below we have included low-impact strength and balance exercises for seniors. These exercises are recommended to be performed 3 times a week. And, we recommend starting at 10 repetitions each. The more strong and comfortable you feel, the more you can slowly increase your repetitions. This exercise routine should never hurt. Please stop immediately if you are in pain.

Exercising the legs is especially important for seniors.

1. Ankle Circles

This exercise is a great way to warm up the legs and feet. Keeping your ankles flexible is important for maintaining balance, stability, and flexibility. Having strong ankles are important for maintaining control as you walk. They help you stop and change directions. They also help keep us standing up straight and supported over our center of gravity. You can easily perform ankle circles in a sitting position. If you are sitting for a prolonged period it is a good idea to do ankle circles to keep the blood flowing. Here’s how ankle circles are done:

  1. Sit in a chair in an upright position. 
  2. Keep your left foot flat on the floor. Lift the right knee in the air and draw a circle with your right foot. Repeat 20 times.
  3. Draw a circle with your right foot in the other direction. Repeat  20 times. 
  4. Perform the same exercise with the left foot.
  5. If you are unable to lift your knee into the air, try simply extending your knee out instead. Try the exercise while standing for more of a challenge. Ankle circles while standing will challenge you and help improve your balance. 

2. Hip Marching

This exercise targets your hip flexors and thighs. You will be able to walk farther and faster. It also helps you pick your feet up so you don’t trip over things. In this exercise, you can use 2 to 5-pound ankle weights for an extra challenge.

  1. Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Inhale as you slowly lift your left knee into the air as high as you can.
  3. Exhale as you slowly lower back down to the ground. Repeat 10 times total.
  4. Do the same with your right knee.

3. Knee Extension

This exercise is especially useful for knee rehabilitation and improving your range of motion. If you have a knee injury, consult your physical therapist first to see if this exercise could be right for you. Having flexible and functioning knees are so important for balance, standing, and avoiding injuries. In this exercise, you can use 2 to 5-pound ankle weights for an extra challenge.

  1. Sit up straight in a chair with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Inhale as your lift and slowly straighten your left knee in front of you. Tilt your toes towards you as best you can. Hold for a few seconds.
  3. Exhale as you slowly return your left foot to the ground. Repeat 10 times.
  4. Do the same with your right knee.

4. Calf Raises

Strengthening your calves is important for balance and walking. These are the powerhouse of your legs and aid you in the ability to push off of surfaces as you walk. Calf strength is also important for walking up hills and through uneven surfaces. We recommend doing these chair exercises a couple of times a day. Getting the blood pumping up from your lower legs to your brain will help avoid you getting light-headed and prevents fainting. 

  1. Stand behind a chair, holding onto the back of it for balance. Keep your back straight. 
  2. Inhale as you slowly raise to your tip-toes as high as is comfortable for you. Try not to move the rest of your body.
  3. Exhale as you lower slowly back down to your feet flat on the floor.
  4. Repeat 10 times.
  5. For an extra challenge, try without holding onto the chair. Or, try only using a few fingers. 

5. Standing Knee Flexion

This exercise targets the hamstring muscles and increases your ability to bend and flex your knee. This improves standing and walking, which means better balance and less risk of falls. In this exercise, you can use 2 to 5-pound ankle weights for an extra challenge.

  1. Stretch your hamstring for a few seconds before starting this exercise.
  2. Stand up straight behind a chair, holding onto the back of it for balance.
  3. Inhale as you slowly raise your left foot behind you, bending your knee backward. Try to bend your knee into a right angle, or as far as you comfortably can. Do not bend at the hips.
  4. Exhale as you slowly return your left foot to standing flat on the ground.
  5. Repeat 10 times.
  6. Do the same with your right foot.
  7. For an extra challenge, try without holding onto the chair. Or, try only using a few fingers.

6. Side Hip Raise

Strengthening your hips is essential for walking and side-stepping. Keeping your hips healthy and strong prevents osteoarthritis of the hips. In this exercise, you can use 2 to 5-pound ankle weights for an extra challenge.

  1. Stand up straight behind a chair, ribs lifted, holding onto the back of it for balance. Your feet should be hip-width apart. 
  2. Inhale as you slowly lift your left leg to the side. Try to keep your foot in a right angle, toes pointing forward. Proceed to as high as is comfortable for you. Do not bend at your hips.
  3. Exhale as you slowly return your leg to the ground.
  4. Repeat 10 times. 
  5. Do the same with your opposite leg.
  6. For an extra challenge, try without holding onto the chair. Or, try only using a few fingers.

7. Sit to Stand

Of all the exercises listed here, this is the most important. The ability to get up from a chair, toilet, bed, or out of a car on your own is one of the biggest keys to maintaining your independence. This exercise is essential for leg and hip strength. Repeat this exercise as often as you can to stay strong. Use a walker or other form of support if needed. For an extra challenge, hold 2 to 5-pound dumbbells, in each hand, against your chest.

  1. Stand tall directly in front of the chair, the back of your knees touching the seat. 
  2. Inhale as you slowly lean forward and bend from your hips toward the chair. Stop before you sit down.
  3. Pause, then exhale as you slowly raise yourself back into the standing position.
  4. Repeat 10 times.
  5. If you have trouble stopping before the chair, you can sit down and then get up from there.

8. Heel Stand

This exercise promotes the stretching of the ankle, which gets the blood flow in your legs going. Focusing on this area is essential for your ability to stand and balance. Keeping your heels strong will allow you to step over things without tripping.

  1. Stand up straight behind a chair, ribs lifted, holding onto the back of it for balance. 
  2. Exhale as you slowly rock back onto your heels, lifting your toes from the ground.
  3. Inhale as you slowly lower your toes back flat on the ground
  4. Repeat 10 times.
  5. Stand up straight behind a chair, ribs lifted, holding onto the back of it for balance. 
Lunges are a great way for seniors to workout their legs.

9. Lunges

Strengthening your quadriceps and hips are important for standing, balancing, and walking. These muscles are also helpful for getting up out of a chair and lifting things. The more comfortable and stronger you get with this exercise, the deeper you can lunge. To further challenge yourself, hold a 2 to 5-pound weight in each hand.

  1. Stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart, with your hands on your hips.
  2. Exhale as you slowly step forward with your left foot. Keep your torso standing up straight and your right foot planted.
  3. Inhale as you slowly return your left foot to the starting position. Repeat 10 times.
  4. Do the same thing with your right foot.

10. Straight Leg Raise

This exercise is especially good for your hip flexors, abdominal muscles, and quadriceps. These in turn help with your flexibility and balance. For an extra challenge, add a 2 to 5-pound ankle weight to each foot.

  1. Lay straight on your back on a mat. Make sure that your lower back is touching the floor. Start with your left knee bent with your left foot on the ground, while keeping your right leg straight. Keep your palms flat against the ground.
  2. Inhale as you slowly raise your right leg (still straightened) to the height of your left knee. If possible, hold the position for 10 seconds. 
  3. Exhale as you return your right leg to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 10 times. 
  5. Do the same thing with your left leg.

11. Partial Squats

This exercise targets your quadriceps and hip flexors, which means an increase in hip flexibility. This is important for your ability to stand up from a chair or to step over something. And the longer you can stand up and balance on your own, the longer you can be independent. To further challenge yourself in this exercise, hold a 2 to 5-pound weight in each hand.

  1. Stand up straight behind a chair. Keep shoulder blades and ribs lifted, holding onto the back of it for balance. Inhale.
  2. Exhale as you slowly bend your knees as low as you can comfortably go. Make sure to keep your upper body straight.
  3. Inhale as you slowly return to the starting position. 
  4. Repeat 10 times.
  5. For an extra challenge, try without holding onto the chair. Or, try only using a few fingers.

12. Hip Extension

This exercise is great for hip muscles and glutes, aiding you to stand firm and walk confidently. Maintaining strong hips is vital for your overall leg function. Avoid arching your back in this exercise to prevent injury. For an extra challenge, add a 2 to 5-pound ankle weight to each foot.

  1. Stand up straight behind a chair, ribs lifted, holding onto the back of it for balance.
  2. Inhale as you slowly extend your left foot back as you keep your knee straightened. Your foot should stay at a right angle. 
  3. Exhale as you slowly return your left foot to the starting position.
  4. Repeat 10 times.
  5. Switch sides, and do the same thing with the right foot.
  6. For an extra challenge, try without holding onto the chair. Or, try only using a few fingers.

13. Step-Ups

This is an important leg strengthening exercise as it focuses on one very important skill: stepping up. Being unable to climb stairs seriously limits places you can go. This exercise will help build your glutes and quadriceps so you can climb stairs and step over things. For an extra challenge, add 2 to 5-pound ankle weights to each foot.

Forward step-ups:

  1. Stand up straight at the bottom of the stairs. Hold onto the railing for support.
  2. Slowly step up with your right foot, firmly planting it fully on the step.
  3. Follow with your left foot.
  4. Slowly step back down with your right foot, then with your left.
  5. Repeat 10 times.
  6. Do the same thing but starting with your left foot pushing up first. 

Sideways step-ups: 

  1. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, turn your body 90 degrees to your right. Your feet should be parallel to the stairs. Your left foot should be right next to the bottom step. Hold onto the railing with your left hand.
  2. Slowly step your left foot onto the crevice of the first step, butting it up against the second step. 
  3. Slowly step your right foot next to the left, then bring it back down to its starting position.
  4. Bring your left foot back down to the floor level.
  5. Repeat 10 times.
  6. Switch sides, starting with your right foot. Repeat the exercise with your right foot stepping first. 

We genuinely hope you can incorporate these leg exercises for seniors into your daily activities. Taking the time to improve your or a loved one’s health now will benefit the long run. If you are in further need of finding a caregiver or other assistance, we are here for you. Post a job with us to hire someone to help you when things get too difficult. 

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