Chair Exercises: Everyone Can Exercise

People exercising while sitting on balls
November 5, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

I met a patient I’ll call Scott when I was giving a speech about healthy living at a local health food store. The talk focused on things we should all do every day to stay healthy, things like eating real, whole food, getting plenty of sleep, and the one no one wants to hear about—exercising.

When I got to the last item, Scott spoke up. “What about people who have a hard time exercising?” he asked. “I’m a hit and run victim, still recovering from two broken legs. I’d like to be able to go for a walk, but right now just getting out of a chair is pretty tough.”

I promised to research Scott’s question, because it’s an important issue. Roughly one in every five Americans lives with a disability, and one in ten is severely disabled. And I knew that the disabled needed the health benefits of exercise—stress relief, weight management, improved mood, stronger bones, and better sleep—too.

Of course, the disabled aren’t the only ones who sometimes aren’t enthusiastic about exercising. People with chronic ailments, like arthritis, breathing difficulties, or heart disease, often avoid exercise, when it would do them a world of good.

And there’s another issue you should be aware of—sarcopenia—a fancy word for the loss of muscle mass and co-ordination that occurs as you age.

Sarcopenia leads to muscle weakness, falls, and broken bones that can be devastating to seniors.

Sarcopenia and the frailness that often comes with age are not inevitable! Research has repeatedly shown that it’s never too late to start exercising and reap the rewards.

After meeting with physical therapists and trainers, I discovered that the key to mobilizing people like Scott is being creative about what we call “exercise.”

For people without physical limitations, I recommend walking 30 to 45 minutes most days of the week. But for someone like Scott, who still needed support from a walker to get around, I scale back expectations.

In Scott’s situation, for example, I suggested chair exercises that would allow him to strengthen his muscles so they wouldn’t waste away. Here are my recommendations.

20141105 Seated Leg Lifts Seated bicep curls: Sit up as straight as you can. Holding a small free weight (one or two pounds) let your right arm hang straight down, then slowly bend your elbow and lift the weight as close to your shoulder as possible.

Hold for a second or two, then slowly relax your arm until it’s straight again. Do as many repetitions as you can, aiming for 12 at a time. Your goal should be three sets of 12 once or twice daily.

If you prefer, do both arms at the same time by alternating between right and left. Just remember to breathe! Take a deep breath before beginning, exhale hard when contracting your bicep muscle, then inhale again when relaxing your arm.

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20141105 Sitting Push Ups Sitting push-ups: Continue to strengthen your upper body with pushups done while seated in a chair with armrests. Lay your forearms on the armrests and push to raise your body out of the chair.

Hold for a few seconds, then lower yourself back into the chair. Repeat ten to 20 times, once or twice daily. Strong arms make everyday tasks easier, so both these exercises are important.

For the lower body, try seated leg lifts and tip-toe stretches.

20141105 Tip Toe Stretch Seated leg lifts: While sitting comfortably, raise your right leg until it is straight out in front of you. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly bend your knee and lower your leg so your foot is on the floor again.

Repeat with your left leg. Do two or three sets of 12 leg lifts, once or twice daily. If this exercise becomes too easy, add small ankle weights for an extra challenge. These leg lifts help strengthen the quadriceps, four muscles in the front of your legs that help stabilize you when standing.

20141105 Seated Bicep Curl Tip-toe stretch: Stand so you’re near a wall or have a door frame to hold on to, if need be. With feet about shoulder width apart and flat on the ground, raise up so both feet are on tip-toes. If you feel a bit wobbly, use the wall or doorway to stabilize yourself.

Hold for a few seconds, then lower yourself to the starting position. Do two or three sets of 12 twice daily. This exercise strengthens your hips and calves, making you less vulnerable to hip fractures.

This is just a small sampling of the type of exercises that can turn back the clock and restore strength, no matter what condition you’re in right now.

There are so many other options for exercising with mobility issues. If you have access to a swimming pool, water aerobics is another wonderful workout. Then there’s yoga, either the regular version or with a chair, and Tai Chi, a very gentle workout using slow-motion movements.

Once you get moving, I think you’ll agree with Scott that working out makes a huge difference. “Learning to exercise again changed my life,” Scott says.

“I get around better now and barely ever use the walker unless I’m tired. And I feel good—I sleep better, I’m less anxious, and I’ve lost weight.

“Four years ago, doctors told me I’d have to get used to a wheelchair, because walking was going to be too hard. And look at me now! I’m not running marathons, but I can do a lot more than they said I’d be able to. And it’s all because you got me up and moving!”

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