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The #1 Exercise to Do as You Get Older

If you have time for only one exercise, fitness experts say, try this

spinner image a woman performing a squat exercise
Mary Beth Koeth

Seated? Please stand (don’t use your hands) to give tribute to the one exercise that fitness gurus say stands out among the rest for healthy aging. Now be seated again. Consider that your first rep.

Yes, a great workout challenges all of the major muscle groups in your upper and lower body. But if you have time for only one exercise, you’ll get the most bang for your buck by doing squats — the classic move in which you slowly lower your bottom to seated level, then stand back up. 

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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.

Squats are the antidote to soft couch-cushion syndrome — those challenging moments when we struggle to get up from that deep, old sofa. They can also help protect your joints, improve your balance and prevent falls, says Denise Austin, for 40 years one of America’s best-known fitness experts and authors. “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.” 

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Some research even shows a link between strong leg muscles and longevity. In one study, people ages 70 to 79 with stronger quadriceps (the muscles along the front of the thigh) had a lower chance of dying over six years compared with those who had weaker quadriceps

Here's how to get started:

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.  

Make sure your knees do not extend forward over your toes, because that can hurt your knees.

If you have knee or hip issues, you don’t need to do a deep bend. The coming-up part of the exercise is what really builds strength, Austin says.

3. Repeat

Aim for two sets of eight to 10, at a tempo of two seconds down, two seconds up. Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up. As your body tires at the end of the set, make sure you’re not hunching over or letting your knees cave in. 

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For the best results, do the exercise two or three times a week.

4. Get your arms in play

spinner image a woman doing a squat while engaging her arms
Mary Beth Koeth

As you start to build strength, you can try doing your squats without holding on to anything. For balance, let your arms rise parallel in front of you on the downward part of the squat, then drop them to your sides when you stand up, Austin suggests. You can see Austin demonstrating how to do a mini-squat in the video below.

Another option is to cross your arms across your chest. That can help keep you upright if you tend to hunch over, Daw says.

5. For a greater challenge, add resistance

spinner image a woman doing a squat with dumbbells
Mary Beth Koeth

Once you can do two sets of 15 without feeling any muscle soreness afterward, you’re ready to add some weight. 

The easiest way is to hold a pair of dumbbells, Daw says. “That’s how you build strength faster,” he says. Start with low weights and build up.

spinner image from left to right types of squats including split squats then heel raise squats then dumbbell-offset squats then side kick squats
Christine Rösch

New Squats for Older Legs

Once you’ve mastered the basic squat, you might want to try one or more of these variations. Why? Your muscles are fast learners, so within four to six workouts, they’ll figure out how to do the same old squat exercise using less energy and fewer muscle fibers — leaving you with fewer results. Just the slightest change to the squat reminds your muscles to pay attention, which improves your overall strength and fitness and helps enhance balance. 

Split squats

Instead of keeping your feet alongside each other, step forward with your left foot and plant it about three feet in front of your right foot. Your left foot should be flat on the floor, while your right foot — because of the angle — should have only the ball of it touching the floor with your heel slightly elevated. Either put your hands on your hips or let your arms hang down at your sides.

Holding this posture, slowly squat down until your left thigh is parallel to the floor — your right knee will naturally lower down to just above the floor. Push yourself back up, repeat 6 to 8 times, then switch positions (putting your right foot forward) and repeat 6 to 8 more times.

Heel-raise squats

Get into the same position as a regular squat. Squat down as usual, then stand back up, but once you’re back in a standing position, keep raising up by lifting your heels off the floor as far as you can without losing balance (even a centimeter off the floor still counts). Pause at the top for a second or two if possible — if you can’t for now, that’s OK, you’ll get there! — then lower your heels back down to the floor. Repeat 8 to 10 times. 

Dumbbell-offset squats

This exercise forces your body to find its balance. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart holding a light dumbbell in each hand. Curl the weight in your left hand up and rest the dumbbell on your left shoulder — leave your right arm hanging down at your side. Do one set of 8 to 10 repetitions of squats. Once finished, switch positions (resting the dumbbell in your right hand on your right shoulder, keeping your left arm straight) and perform a second set of 8 to 10 repetitions.

Side-kick squats

Position yourself as if you were about to do a traditional squat, but bring your hands up in front of your chest. Squat down, then as you push yourself back up into a standing position, shift your weight onto your right leg and gently sweep your left leg out to the side, so that you use only your right leg to push yourself back up. Bring your left foot back down into the starting position, then squat down once again, this time shifting your weight onto your left leg as you rise and gently sweep your right leg out to the side. Continue alternating from left to right for 8 to 10 repetitions.

— Myatt Murphy, certified strength and conditioning specialist