Why Seniors Need to Get to the Gym Part 4 (of 4)

Larry Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP
Psychologist/Senior Fitness Specialist


Flexibility and balance are as important to senior fitness as aerobic and strength training. As seen with aerobicizing and weight lifting, this adage very much applies: “Use it or lose it.” Another quip I recently heard is equally relevant: “When I rest, I rust.” Over time, without intervention, our bodies gradually become stiffer and our balance significantly deteriorates.

Body Tightness and Stiffness

Body stiffness causes those body aches with which many seniors are quite familiar. Moreover, as our bodies tighten we become susceptible to painful, debilitating muscle “pulls” (actually tears) in our legs (calves, hamstrings, groin, and quadriceps), back (upper and lower) and shoulders. These injuries can occur simply by twisting the wrong way, bending too far, making a sudden move, sleeping awkwardly, or even just coughing or sneezing.

Body stiffness also causes functional limitations, as some seniors struggle with their ADLs (activities of daily living), like bending to tie shoes or grasp something from the floor. Additionally, decreased range of motion may interfere with basic household chores, such as reaching to change a lightbulb or stooping under a bathroom vanity to tighten a leaky faucet.


The inexorable loss of balance that typically occurs in seniors is sneaky. We don’t recognize this balance issue is occurring because we keep doing the same activities with no apparent problems. However, one day we may be walking on uneven ground or we step awkwardly—and we fall. Unfortunately, for many seniors a fall where we hit our head or break a bone, particularly the hip or coccyx (tailbone), is often the beginning of the end of functionality and independence. Women are especially vulnerable to the complications of a fall because their bones are smaller and typically more porous.
As an experiment, stand next to a wall or railing to catch yourself, then stand barefoot on your preferred foot and bend your non-preferred leg and place that foot between your ankle and knee on your preferred leg (forming the number 4 with your legs). Try to balance on that one foot and place your hands up like cactus arms. To maintain balance momentarily touch your bent foot to the floor or briefly hold onto the railing. Next, try to balance on the other (non-preferred) leg. If you can balance for several seconds, especially with your other foot near the other knee, your balance is in decent shape. If you can maintain your balance for only a second or two, as is typically the case for most seniors, balance exercises must become part of your fitness routine.


Stretching exercises can and should be done daily. They absolutely should be done before aerobicizing and after every strength training. There are multiple stretches that can be done to work essentially every part of the body, with no equipment necessary, except perhaps a strap. There are numerous wall charts and references depicting many common stretches. Also, a trainer at the gym will gladly demonstrate several preferred stretches. Most stretches should be held for about 20 seconds. As with weight training, proper posture and breathing are mandatory for good results. Six to 10 stretches, particularly focused on the legs and back, are sufficient. Obviously, then, an episode of stretching should take only 10-15 minutes.

Balance Training

Balance exercises should also be done regularly, usually in conjunction with stretching. The exercise described above is a common one, along with standing (perhaps on one foot?) on a Bosu ball (a spongy half-sphere). Again, a trainer will have other ideas to help maintain your sense of balance.


Most gyms offer stretch, mat Pilates, and yoga classes. Attending one or two of these classes each week would be an excellent way to enhance flexibility and balance (and even develop some strength)—and have a pleasant social experience to boot. The stretches done in yoga are particularly healthful, as they are often dynamic (stretching one way while simultaneously twisting in another direction) which are great for the back and spine, but rarely are done by solo stretchers. This June issue of The AARP Magazine featured an article entitled “21 (Scientifically Proven) Reasons to Do Yoga after 70.” The first two reasons were Improves Flexibility and Increases
Balance, not surprisingly, but other benefits included weight control, activates cognition, soothes stress, reduces depression, protects the heart, promotes sleep, eases back pain, boosts body image, relieves headaches, lessens inflammation, helps breathing, slows aging, etc. Yoga is undoubtedly one of the healthiest things seniors can do. More seniors—including men—are becoming aware of the benefits of yoga—but many more seniors must become involved.

Final Note

If you have perused these articles, you may be thinking that to become and stay fit demands too much time and work. Yes, fitness is a commitment of time and effort but it is worth it. As I have said for decades, “We always find the time to deal with sickness; why can’t we find time to be healthy?” If you are willing to spend 3-5 hours per week on your fitness, including eating a healthy diet, your functionality and quality of life will dramatically increase. My strong recommendation is to go to a gym and make some new friends while you are getting (and staying) in shape. In addition to feeling and looking healthier, your spouse, children, and grandchildren will thank you.

Author's Bio: 

Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who practiced in Phoenix for 45 years. He worked with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples. He also provided forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning. He speaks professionally on marriage, parenting, private practice development, psychotherapy and wellness to laypersons, educators, corporations, attorneys, chiropractors, and fellow mental health professionals. He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department of Ottawa University. He also is a certified senior fitness specialist. He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline;” “Coping with Your Adolescent;” “How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him? Making Your Marriage Work Better;” “The Graduate Course You Never Had: How to Develop, Manage, and Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care;” “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune? Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals;” and “Overcoming Your Negotiaphobia: Negotiating Your Way Through Life.” His contact information is: 602-418-8161; email--LarryWaldmanPhD@cox.net; website--TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.