5 Essential Exercises to Help Older People Maintain Independence

As we get older we lose muscle mass and strength. We also lose bone density meaning falls and knocks can become much more serious and more difficult to recover from. This is why many older people are turning to resistance exercise to help prevent muscle tissue break down, maintain strength and improve their balance and joint mobility.

Some of the many benefits of strength training for older people particularly include:

There are a catalogue of great exercises that you can choose from but I’ve selected the following exercises because they target all the key areas, provide balance training, movement correction and can be adapted to make them appropriate for various levels of abilities.

1 Glute Bridges

The hips can become massively problematic as we age. They tend to become tighter and weaker which leads to all sorts of aches, pains and issues in other joints.

Glute Bridges are a phenomenal exercise to teach your body to rely on the glutes when you extend your hip and not just your lower back or hamstrings. The ability to move at your hips while keeping your spine rigid is imperative for preventing unnecessary pressure on the lower back.

How do do it:

  • Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground and your arms by your side.
  • At the bottom of the movement, your knees will form a 90-degree angle, and your hips will form a 130-140-degree angle.
  • Push through your heels, and raise your hips as high as possible without arching your lower back, feeling the movement mostly in the glutes.
  • At the top of the movement, your hips will form a straight line from the knees to the shoulders.
  • Perform 3 sets of 15-20 reps to get you started.

2 Step Ups

Stepping up and down off a high step is a skill that deteriorates as we progress through life. This is due to a combination of muscle strength deterioration, loss of balance, and coordination. This typically results in compensation by over using the calves, arms and momentum, instead of the correct muscles.

It’s an important skill to learn or relearn for older people in order to navigate stairs and uneven surfaces safely and unaided.

How do do it:

  • Stand about 6 inches from the box or bench.
  • Step up with your entire foot on the bench or box not just your toes (14 inch – 20 inch height is usually appropriate for the box or bench. It should reach just below your knee cap)
  • Avoid leaning too far forward as you ascend.
  • Try to use the working leg as much as possible and avoid using too much spring from your back leg.
  • Return to the starting position in a slow, controlled way and avoid dropping without onto the floor.
  • Avoid both feet touching the box at the top as this can allow “cheating” later on in the set by only completing 3/4 of the movement on the front leg.
  • Aim for about 8-10 reps on each leg, 3 sets.

3 Dumbbell Rows

The shoulders are another area which can become an issue as we get older. A common trend is for the muscles in the back half of our bodies to become weaker and generally underused. This has a significant knock on effect for your shoulder mobility, overall posture and it’s important to address this.

When you perform this exercise it’s important to avoid using momentum. Instead, use your back muscles. Position your standing leg to ensure your hips are level and your torso is facing the floor.

How do do it:

  • Put your left knee on the bench, lean forward, support yourself with your left hand.
  • Position your right foot on the floor, grasp the dumbbell from the floor with your right hand (palm facing in). Brace your core and lift it off the ground to put tension on the back muscles.
  • Pull the dumbbell up your side by bending at the elbow until it reaches your ribs.
  • Lower the weight down until your arm is fully stretched.
  • Repeat for reps on both sides.
  • Aim for about 3 sets with 10-15 reps on each arm.

4 Squats

Squatting is one of the most useful movements we can perform as humans and it’s incredibly important to practice them regularly. As the old saying goes – “use it or lose it.”

Squats are as old as man himself. It’s an important movement pattern to maintain or reclaim if you’ve lost it. It’s crucial that you learn to distribute the weight between your hips, knees and ankles in order to maintain healthy joints.

How do do it:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Where you point your toes depends upon where you feel most comfortable. Most people have a 30-degree angle.
  • Stand tall, grip the ground with your feet, especially your big toe, little toe and heel.
  • Hinge SLIGHTLY at the hips and descend by bending your knees.
  • Maintain your bodyweight through the middle of your feet. DON’T LET YOUR HEELS COME OFF THE GROUND!
  • Try to push your knees forward and get as low as you can without your back bending or your torso hinging over too far.
  • Come back up again and squeeze your glutes at the top.
  • Perform 3 sets with about 10-20 reps depending on your level of ability.

5 Hip Hinges / Deadlifts

It’s important to maintain strength in the posterior chain, especially as we get on in years. One of the most practical movements to strengthen this area are Hip Hinges or Deadlifts as they’re commonly known. A faulty or weak hip hinge movement pattern can cause all sorts of problems, including one of the most common ones – lower back aches.

There are numerous varieties of Hip Hinge / Deadlift which can be selected depending on your injury history, body mechanics, skill and confidence. No matter what type of deadlift is selected, the hamstrings, glutes, lower back muscles (erector spinae) lats, traps, rear delts and rhomboids will all be working to one degree or another.

The technique below is using a barbell. The weight will be dictated by your own level of skill, experience and strength.

How do do it:

  • Begin by standing with a narrow stance and your feet pointed ahead.
  • Ensure the barbell is over the middle of your feet.
  • Brace your core and grip the barbell just outside knee width.
  • Your shoulders should be higher than your hips and your hips should be higher than your knees.
  • Ensure your head is in line with your neck and your neck in line with your spine.
  • Engage your hamstrings, ensure your back is straight and push through your feet.
  • Try to keep the bar close to your body. It should look like a straight line from the side view.
  • When you reach the top, squeeze your glutes and bring your shoulder over the top of your hips.
  • Begin to lower the bar by pushing your hips back slightly, using your hamstrings like the brakes on a car.
  • As the bar passes your knees, bend your knees more until the plates reach the ground.
  • Keep the weight heavy enough to feel the need for all the technique, but light enough to allow you to practice it safely.
  • Aim for about 10-15 reps and 3 sets.

If you’re over 50 and you know you need to do something to maintain strength and independence as you get older, then you should definitely incorporate these exercises into your regular regime. Adjust them, adapt them and make them work for you and your anatomy.

Before completing any new exercise routine you should check with your doctor or physio. If you aren’t sure whether you’re ready or not you could complete this PAR-Q form here to check.

Macro Meals, Meal Plans – Are They The Answer?

A new thriving area of fitness and nutrition has been the emergence of low calorie Meal Plans.

Are they a fad? 

Do they “work”? 

Are they worth the money?

Should you be taking them?

Over the last few years as Meal Plans have become more popularised I’ve had numerous questions about them from clients and many others. I have been reluctant to comment too much as;

1) I hadn’t looked into them enough (until now)

2) I realise not every meal planning company is the same so it’s important not to assess all of them as one.

DISCLAIMER: I’m all about solving problems as a fitness professional. I wake up every day trying to think of ways to help solve the issues my clients have. I’m also a massive fan of small businesses and entrepreneurial ingenuity so by commenting on Meal Plans it’s not my intention to discredit or harm anyone’s business. However my main intention is to enable you to solve your fitness and nutrition problems LONG TERM.

Here are some thoughts and concerns with Meal Plans currently.

1) An extreme reduction in calories causes metabolic adaptation which reduces your body’s ability to burn calories at rest.

If you’re in an extreme calorie deficit for a long time, your metabolism can begin to slow up. Your body cares about your survival, so it will take measures to make sure you don’t starve to death. This could happen on meal plans because they don’t consider your individual calorie needs. For example if you’re relying on 800 calories from your lunch and dinner meal plans this is isn’t anywhere near enough for the vast majority of the population, (unless you’re elderly, physically disabled or a child).

2) Buying meal plans teaches you nothing.
It’s a bit like going to a restaurant for a nice meal. You enjoy a lovely meal while you’re at the restaurant, but you learnt little or nothing about how to do it for yourself in the future. This essentially means you have to keep getting meal plans in order to continue your weight management or else you’ll inevitably start putting on excess weight again. Unless you learn and adopt healthy habits yourself you will have no skills or a change of mindset to sustain your success long term.

3) One size CANNOT possibly fit all.
I was very concerned to learn that one meal plan company I came across provided meals with the same amount of calories for a 120 kg man as a 60kg woman. You might argue that it’s up to each person to decide for themselves what they need to eat, but it is still very misleading. 800 calories for lunch and dinner is simply not enough for most people, never mind heavier individuals or those who are more active.

4) Meal Plans can be a helpful kick start but can encourage laziness and bad habits.
I’ve seen some great things happen in the short term when someone starts meal plans. They inevitably begin to lose weight at the start due to the reduction in their calorie intake from their main meals each day. However, it often grinds to a sudden and sharp halt. Why is this? There are numerous possibilities:

  • Metabolic adaptation (as discussed above)
  • Calorie needs change as your body composition changes
  • If core habits haven’t changed, then meals plans only get you so far
  • When you haven’t got meal plans you still make poor choices
  • It might be liquid calories (eg, alcohol) that are your problem rather than food choices

5) Meal Plans can be a great option once in a while if you’re in a rush.

If you’re under pressure or haven’t had time to prepare and cook your own meals, Meal Plans can be a great, quick, nutritious option instead of opting for a takeaway or oven pizza.

6) Meal Plans usually provide a decent amount of protein, vitamins, minerals and fibre.

One of the great points about most Meal Plans is they usually provide a decent amount of essential nutrients. These are all important not just for weight management but also optimal health.

It’s Up To You

Maybe you’ve thought about all the above before yourself. Maybe you share some of my concerns or maybe you disagree entirely. That’s cool. It really is up to you. Hopefully this has provided you with some thoughts to make better informed decisions and be aware of the potential issues with Meal Plans. Rather than simply saying “meal plans are bad” or “meal plans are good,” it seems much more sensible to be able to critically evaluate them for yourself and see how you can use them if necessary, rather than becoming a slave to them or putting your full trust in them for your long term weight management success.

Cross Functional Fitness and many other reliable fitness and nutrition organisations recognise the need for education, coaching and habit building in order to help you make informed food choices and assume control of your own nutrition habits for life.

If you’re like to join many others who have been successful in losing inches from their waist, you can do so by applying below.

Dealing with Criticism

“Just one biscuit won’t do you any harm.”

“You’re obsessed!”

“You look very skinny. Are you okay?”

“You’re so lucky to be in such good shape.”

“Once you stop working out, your muscles turn to fat.”

“I’m worried about you. You hardly eat.”

“If you keep training with weights you’ll end up looking like a man.”

“One day away from the gym isn’t going to kill you.”

Harmless or Hurtful?

Some of these comments are more hurtful and harmful than others. But very few are helpful, encouraging or caring. Most people will be supportive when you decide to change your life by starting strength training and sensible nutrition, but for every 9 supporters, you’ll always get one critic.

You know the type. It might be subtle digs, disguised jokes, or full blown barbed comments which can ruin your good day and leave you thinking about it for much longer than you’d wish – even keeping you awake at night trying to decipher what they “really” meant.

Making a positive change for yourself can be tough enough, especially if you’ve had unhealthy habits ingrained for many years. Thoughtless, rude comments are the last thing you need and can leave you questioning what your goal was in the first place.

How Should you Deal with it?

If / when these comments come your way, it’s important to reflect on what your goal was originally. In fact, it’s helpful to have it written down so that you can reflect back upon it. Seeing it and saying it are more powerful reminders than simply remembering it in your head.

Ask yourself whose opinion actually matters. Are other people’s opinions more important than your success? It should be said at this point that it’s incredibly important that you’re the reason you’re trying to achieve your goal, not anyone else.

Try not to take things personally. More often than not these comments come from a deep insecurity that someone has for one reason or another, rather than you. Try not to take them seriously and don’t take them to heart. Laugh at them. Humour them, and quickly wipe them from your mind because they aren’t worth more than 2 seconds of your attention.

Fat Shaming V Fat Loss Shaming – Double Standards

In recent times “fat shaming” has been heavily criticised, and rightly so. Fat shaming helps no one and only enhances the sense of superiority of the one who partakes in it.

But lets not forget that the alternative has been shamed for years without condemnation or even recognition. If you try to take care of your body by building healthy nutrition habits and working out it’s socially acceptable to make fun of that person. If they start to make visible progress it’s okay to label them as obsessed and even try to persuade them back into unhealthy habits such as drinking copious amounts of alcohol, skipping their workout and poor food choices.

SMART Goal Setting

When you forge a clear goal for yourself that YOU want to achieve, snide comments from others will run off your back. The more you understand your goal, how it can be achieved, the timescale, the process and the outcomes, the less time you’ll have to think about other people’s unhelpful comments.

Remember this – you’ll never please everyone. You aren’t trying to reach anyone else’s standards. You’re striving towards the standards you set for yourself.

The choice is yours – do you want to spend your time and energy surging towards your goal, getting stronger, getting leaner, building muscle, enhancing your heart health, hormone balance, metabolic function and numerous other outcomes or fall away to other people’s jealous, petty comments?

With all that being said, don’t feel guilty about letting loose every now and then and definitely make the most of special occasions. Birthdays, Christmas, a night out, cinema date, BBQ or other one off occasions should be enjoyed for what they are. You can feel free to have cake, dessert, popcorn, burger, hotdog, ice cream are all fine, in moderation.

It’s when a one off becomes a two day event, a weekend, a daily habit and then a lifestyle that you’re in trouble. You don’t have to take this stuff if you don’t want to, just to conform to other people’s expectations. It might not seem like it, but everyone really admires people who are incredibly disciplined and committed, even if one or two might express it through cynical, thoughtless comments.