Improving Mobility in the Elderly: Exercises and Tips to Stay Healthy

While more people are living longer and healthier lives, many still experience problems when moving about in later life.

This may be due to disability, illness, or chronic pain and it can make even gentle exercise seem out of the question. However, if an older person is less mobile, there are ways you can make physical activity more accessible, which, in turn, will have positive effects on their general well-being. In many elderly care establishments, regular activity or exercise sessions are an essential part of the week.

Activity rather than exercise

Thinking about embarking on an exercise routine can be off-putting to some elderly people with reduced mobility, so rather than suggesting this, it may be better to begin by encouraging an older person to move a little more around their home, or perhaps engage in some activities such as dusting easy to reach areas, or re-organising a cluttered drawer.

If you live or care for an older person in their own home, you could also try encouraging them to help with cooking the evening meal. Helping to bring foods from a cupboard or pantry, or mixing ingredients together can introduce movement into their routine.

Even moderate activity like walking from room to room can stretch the muscles and help with breathing, so is well worth encouraging.

Swimming

If they’re mobile enough to make swimming possible, this can offer many health benefits. Taking an older person to a warm swimming pool can be an enjoyable social occasion, and may help to ease joint pain and stiffness for those living with arthritis. Because the water provides support, it can make movement easier and allows the muscles to work without bearing weight.

For those living with more severe mobility issues, swimming may still be a good option for exercise. Some pools have special hoists that can lower people into the water safely, and lift them out at the end of the session. To find a pool near you with these facilities, try Swimming.org’s Poolfinder and select ‘pool hoist’ from the accessibility options.

Some therapy pools and leisure centres also have adapted changing areas for those with special needs, as well as swimming groups and dedicated over senior sessions. If the person you support is keen to try swimming but you’re unsure how to find the right facilities, speaking to a GP, nurse, or occupational therapist is often a good place to start.

Smiling elderly woman enjoying swimming

Improving balance

The less mobile an elderly person is, the more at risk of falls they are. Not only does inactivity weaken the muscles but it can affect balance and coordination too. This is because maintaining balance requires practice – think of it in terms of riding a bicycle. If you ride a bicycle everyday you’ll soon become confident and steady, and riding it will become second nature. However, if you were to stop for a few years and then try to ride, you’ll likely be wobbly to begin with because you’re out of practice.

While riding a bicycle may be a bit too risky for an older person with limited mobility, there are many forms of light exercises that they can do that can improve both balance and coordination.

Tai Chi, for example, involves gentle stretching and breathing and will not tire them too much. If they’re able, gentle dancing to their favourite music at home can be an enjoyable way of getting some exercise, improving balance and boosting their mood too. People who need dementia care are often very responsive to music, especially tunes they remember from their youth.

Gentle yoga exercises can also be suitable for people who are less mobile, and some can be carried out in a seated position at home. Teaching DVDs or instructional videos on YouTube, such as this one from St George’s University Hospital are a great place to start.

Seated exercises

Seated exercises can be done from the comfort of an older person’s home, or at sessions organised by local community groups or Age UK centres. Some Nia (non-impact aerobics) sessions are suitable for people who need to remain seated or who are only able to stand for a limited period, so contact your local group to enquire if they would be appropriate to the needs of the older person you’re caring for.

Seated exercises can help to strengthen many different body areas, including the back, chest and abdomen, as well as the arms and legs.

Live-in care and mobility:

“First thing in the morning [our carer] gets mum to move her arms and legs before she gets out of bed to reduce falls. Her mobility has gone from about zero to almost walking on her own, and she is so much more confident.”

Jane, Elder Customer

Equipment

It can be worthwhile investing in some small, low-cost pieces of exercise equipment for exercising at home. Using wrist weights or resistance bands can help the muscles to work a little harder when doing chair-based exercises. An inflatable ball can be useful for many different movements including helping to keep the arms straight while stretching and holding between the feet if your loved one lies on the floor and tries to lift their legs.

Diet

It is crucial that older people eat healthily to remain as fit as they can. People who do not move around very much often have smaller appetites and may not be able to take in sufficient vitamins, minerals and fuel. If they have a reduced appetite, try to tempt them with high protein snacks such as nuts, low fat cheese, or canned fish, as well as light meals like grilled chicken or bean soup – particularly before they attempt any exercise.

Fluid is also very important. Older people usually have a lower percentage of water in their bodies, and a weaker thrist sensation which puts them as greater risk of dehydration. Ensuring they are drinking enough water is particularly important after increasing the amount of movement they do, because they will lose ultimately lose more fluid. People who become dehydrated can experience pains and cramps, as well as feeling tired after even mild exercise.

There are many steps you can take to help an older person stay as active and mobile as possible, and the key is to tailor any interventions to the individual. If you are unsure about what might be appropriate, their doctor or physical therapist should be able to advise about suitable exercise.