The Worst Exercises for Older Adults

As we grow older, exercise can help continue to enhance our physical and mental acuity. Studies on fitness after age 50 show that maintaining wellness routines increases both mobility and cognitive function. Feeling fit keeps us happier, more active and more engaged with family and community, but some exercises can hurt more than help. Workouts we do in our twenties or thirties might strain muscles or injure joints as we get older. As we age, and throughout life, it’s always a good idea to assess your exercise routine and make adjustments now and then. 

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As our muscles lose strength and our joints and bones weaken, it’s important to cut back on exercises that affect the back and spine. Doing crunches after the age of 50 simply puts too much pressure on the spine, inviting pulled muscles, nerve damage and spinal strain. Planks are a better alternative to crunches and can offer additional benefits, such as improving posture.

Running is great cardiovascular exercise, and those who have trained since youth see a lower risk for injury. However, new or less consistent runners are susceptible to straining their knees and heart. Light jogging or walking can mitigate risks and offer similar aerobic benefits.

Running stairs? Think again. After 50, our balance declines. The chances of a stumble or fall increase, as does wear on the knee joints from the impact of running. A stair-climbing machine at the gym is a suitable substitute — it’s also a practical, all-weather alternative.

Weighty Dangers

Working with weights tones muscles and combats bone loss, but many intricate gym machines become less safe as we age.

  • The leg press poses a threat to spinal discs, as it flattens the back away from its natural arch.
  • The leg extension machine puts a lot of stress on your knees, particularly the kneecaps. Instead, switch to squats, but without weights.
  • The bench press is ill-suited for older joints, which can’t handle lifting too much weight. Shoulders and wrists are particularly at risk.
  • The lateral pull-down machine is no longer a good way to work your shoulders, especially if you pull the bar down behind your head. This puts pressure on the neck and shoulders and invites rotator-cuff tears.
Free Weights with Caution

You can switch from machines to free weights to lower some risks, but still exercise caution:

  • The deadlift is not for beginners. Lifting a heavy barbell straight off the floor requires perfect technique and strength from the hips and torso. Even if you’re practiced enough to avoid straining your lower back, there’s still the risk of injuring a disc.
  • Squats with weights add lots of pressure on the knees. Keep squats in your workout, but skip the hand weights.
  • The overhead press, which consists of lifting two dumbbells above your shoulders, is easy to do incorrectly. Lifting even a bit diagonally strains the shoulder muscles and ligaments, as well as the joints. Dumbbells are good for toning, but be sure to raise the weights straight up, aligned with your torso.
Adjust and Evolve

Instead of throwing in the towel on an exercise regiment, consider evolving your workout. Walk instead of run. Use lighter free weights and increase repetitions. Do planks instead of crunches. You’ll still maintain fitness and energy while reducing your chances of injury.

Trying lower-impact exercises like tai chi or yoga also can be beneficial for mental and physical well-being. Some yoga programs may be too stressful for older adults. Hot yoga, for instance, can lead to overheating, dizziness and dehydration. Try a beginner Ashtanga-style yoga class instead.

Discovering new workouts can be liberating when you embrace fresh challenges and interests. You’ll learn new skills and meet like-minded people. Being smart about exercise is a fantastic example of employing the wisdom that comes with aging.