Fitness becomes more essential as our bodies age. But performing the usual health club exercises is often more difficult due to various issues with joints and muscle groups like quads, shoulders, hamstrings, back muscles and hips.
Just because you now avoid some exercises does not mean you have to. “You can always work all your muscles even if you can’t do what you did when you were younger,” says Gary Reich, 62, personal trainer and owner of 50-Plus Fitness in Superior, Colo.
Instead of casting a blind eye to tough exercises, embrace moves that provide the same effect while taking into account any physical challenges or limitations. Here is a look at five essential exercises that midlifers tend to avoid — and why they shouldn’t — and how to swap each one for something less strenuous that gets the job done.
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Importance Squats, whether barbell squats or seated leg press machines, have long been considered the ultimate quad builder. Located in the front of the legs, the quads are your largest and strongest muscles. They are the powerful extensors of the knee joint that help you get around: walk, run, jump, climb, dance, stand and, of course, squat. Strong quads also increase mobility, balance and core strength. But squats can be near impossible to do if you have back issues or suffer from a knee injury or weakness.
Swap It A safer but still-effective move is to perform a regular squat against a wall with an exercise ball between your back and the wall. “The ball supports your back and takes the pressure off your knees,” Reich says. “Yet it still activates and burns the quads.” You don’t have to use heavy weights either. Your body weight can provide enough resistance as you go down; you can even hold small dumbbells.
Walking lunges are another option. “Make sure to keep your back straight, but tilt slightly forward,” Reich says. “This takes some of the pressure off your back, knees and hips.” Hand weights are optional, but proper form is essential. “It is better to perform 10 lunges the right way and without weights than to do 20 with weights and the wrong posture.”
Importance Pull-ups are done with your palms facing away; chin-ups with your palms facing you. Even the fittest person can usually perform only 10 or so of either at one time. They are hard and can almost be impossible to do if you have any shoulder mobility issues, past surgery or weakening grip strength. But they are highly effective. They build up back muscle weakness as well as strengthen the shoulders and surrounding musculature so you can reach higher and stretch longer.
Swap It Instead of fighting your body weight and gravity to pull yourself up, go in the opposite direction. A seated-cable row brings several back and shoulder muscles into play: the latissimus dorsi (lats), trapezoids and rear deltoids. To fully activate these, make sure to pull the cable toward the chest in a controlled manner with no rocking forward and back. Keep your back straight and stable.
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3) Hamstring Curls
Importance Strong hamstring muscles protect your knees from injury. They also absorb stress placed on your knees from running, walking and other active movements. Yet, hamstrings are often victims of muscle imbalance. "If you only do lunges or squats you are may be overemphasizing working the front part of the leg and not the back," fitness expert Marta Montenegro says. "Eventually, the hamstring will become weaker and weaker."
People ignore their hamstrings because they are tough to train. Since you cannot see them when facing the mirror, they aren't considered important. The typical hamstring exercise is the leg curl machine where you lay face down on a bench and curl your legs up to your buttocks. “It is a tricky move because machines are not 'one size fits all,' so they can set your body in a position in which you may harm your back,” Montenegro says. Likewise, this exercise isolates the hamstring muscles and overlooks other important muscles like the core that work in sequence with your hamstrings.
Swap It Lie on your back and place both feet on an exercise ball, then lift your hips off the ground and bring the ball toward your buttocks. This activates the hamstrings. Return to the starting position — do not let the hips touch the floor — to complete one rep. Aim for 10 and work up from there. “It may be difficult to balance yourself at first, but this move will work the hamstrings, along with the glutes, the back and the abdominals,” Montenegro says. “In real life, moves rarely happen in isolation, you need to engage several muscles at once.”
4) Hip Flexion and Extension
Importance Your hips take a pounding throughout your life — more so than any body area other than the knees, Reich says. You need to keep them strong and flexible. Ignore your hips and you can suffer low back pain and have trouble standing and walking for long periods. They may get so worn down you will need a new one or two. Healthy hips are about strengthening the hip flexors. Yet, the hip flexion machines are easily skipped at the gym. For one, they're awkward to use, and second, they can be painful if you're already fighting tightness. Plus, most people do not think of their hips in terms of exercising.
Swap It You don’t need much movement to strengthen weak hips. Lay on your side with your legs stretched out and lift the top leg as high as possible then back down. Repeat up to 10 times. For a greater challenge, loop a resistance band around your ankles. “Everyone can move this way," Reich says. "It gives your hips a greater range of motion.”
5) Shoulder Press
Importance Seated shoulder press machines work all the shoulder muscles, including the traps and deltoids. Strong shoulders can help maintain a healthy posture and improve your ability to reach, lift and carry, daily activities that become more difficult as we age. Although not as challenging as shoulder-building exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups, overhead shoulder presses still can be difficult if you already lack shoulder mobility, have trouble lifting your arms high overhead or have suffered a shoulder-related injury.
Swap It You can get the same benefit from shoulder shrugs while holding a dumbbell in each hand. This works the trapezoids. Lift the same weights straight out to the side and in front of you to work your front and side deltoids. These moves are safer as they place less pressure on the shoulder joints.
Matthew Solan is a freelance heath writer and frequent contributor to Next Avenue.org.