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.
“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.”
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.