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As you age, you naturally lose muscle mass, so it’s important to strength train to stay strong. Ideally, you should work all of the major muscle groups in your upper and lower body at least twice a week.
But if you have time for only one exercise, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by doing a set of squats, experts say.
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“The squat is the most important exercise for seniors,” says Eric Daw, a personal trainer dedicated to older adults and founder of Omni-Fitt in Toronto, Canada. “When you have to go to the washroom, that’s a squat. When you get in the car, that’s a squat. Every time you sit down or stand up, that’s a squat. If you don’t do them well, it affects the way you live.”
Squats strengthen all of the muscle groups in your legs, including your calves, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, as well as muscles in your lower back and core. Those muscles provide the foundation for most activities of daily living, such as getting off the toilet, climbing a set of stairs and simply standing up from a chair.
Squats can also help protect your joints, improve your balance and prevent falls, says Denise Austin, health and fitness expert and creator of DeniseAustin.com.
“Squats are one of the best overall exercises,” she says. “They strengthen the major muscles of the lower body we need to keep strong and also protect two joints we need help with on a regular basis — our knees and our hips.”
Research shows a link between strong leg muscles and longevity. One study that followed healthy adults 70 and older for more than six years found that those who had greater quadriceps strength had a lower risk of early death. Another study revealed that your ability to sit on the floor and then get up without using your hands or knees could predict mortality.
Here's how to get started with squats:
1. Get in position
If you’re new to squats, choose a spot where you can hold on to the kitchen counter, a table or another steady surface. Holding on for stability makes it easier to focus on your form without worrying about your balance, Austin says.
Set your feet about shoulder-width apart or a little wider. (If you have hip issues, it’s OK to have your legs a little farther apart.) Toes should face slightly outward.
2. Lower into a squat
Keeping your back straight, chest up and heels planted, push your hips back like you are sitting in a chair.
Try to keep your weight evenly distributed on both feet as you do the exercise, with your weight mostly on your heels, not your toes, says Lori Michiel, founder of Lori Michiel Fitness, which specializes in senior fitness in the home.