Building Up While Sitting Down

Whatever your reason for not being able to get up and about, the health benefits of a workout are still within reach.
Older man lifting weights while sitting in a chair.

Maybe you are recovering from illness. Or, despite your best intentions, you spend hours at a time sitting at your desk. Perhaps you’re an older adult with mobility challenges. Wherever you are in your fitness journey, you can benefit from performing basic strengthening exercises whenever you find yourself in a chair.

We checked in with physical therapists Sally Drudi at UVM Health Network – Home Health & Hospice and Matthew Chodat at UVM Health Network – Alice Hyde Medical Center to learn why building strength is so important; they passed along some easy and effective moves you can do while seated.

Building Strength as You Age

Maintaining muscle mass and bone density is essential to living better for longer.

“Everything we do in our daily lives requires use of our physical selves,” says Chodat. “So maintaining and improving your strength – and by extension your balance and endurance – can have a positive effect on your ability to participate in activities you enjoy, like hiking and taking walks, or activities necessary for our independence, like climbing stairs and getting out of bed.”

Unfortunately, we naturally lose bone mass and muscle strength as we get older, says Drudi. “But every one of us – even a very elderly person – can gain strength and muscle mass. We just have to work at it.”

As we age, Drudi continues, we are also at a higher risk for falls. “So it's important to maintain strength and bone density because of the risk of fracture if you do fall.”

Chair-Based Exercises

Both Drudi and Chodat caution that if you’ve suffered an injury you should check with your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. “And if any of these exercises are painful due to arthritis or any other reason, stop doing it and check with your doctor,” Drudi advises.

Toe and Heel Taps

  1. With your toes on the floor, simply raise up your heels as high as you can.
  2. Then bring your heels back to the floor and raise your toes high. 
  3. Go back and forth 25 times. 

“It’s a nice warm-up and helps improve circulation in your lower leg. It gets those muscles pumping,” Chodat says. “This is a really easy and basic move, and something you can repeat throughout the day.”

Adds Drudi: “People can get into the habit of doing these whenever they’re sitting and they don't even think about it.”

Marching in Place

  1. Move your legs up and down as if you’re marching.
  2. Continue for a few minutes and repeat a few times during the day.
  3. Add one- or two-pound ankle weights to make this more challenging.

“I like that this simulates walking and uses those muscles of ambulation, especially the hip flexors and quadriceps. If you pick up the pace, you can also get your heart pumping a little more. Maintain good posture, and you’ll also benefit from some core strengthening,” Chodat says.

Quad Kicks

  1. Kick your foot straight out in front of you, making your leg as straight as possible.
  2. Hold for a second, then let it back down nice and slow.

“This builds strength in your quads and your anterior thigh,” Chodat says.

Ball Squeezes

You can do these with a small ball or even a pillow folded over. This exercise builds your inner thigh muscles and your hip adductors.

  1. Hold the object between your knees and squeeze with your legs.
  2. Hold for five or 10 seconds and then relax.

Arms-Free Standing

  1. Stand up from your chair (make sure it’s one that doesn’t roll), and slowly lower yourself back into it without using your arms.
  2. Stand back up, but don’t push up from the chair to stand. Instead, keep your arms in front of you.
  3. Reach forward, lean forward, then stand up.
  4. Lower yourself back down to your seat and focus on your legs supporting you.

“That’s one of my favorite exercises because you use so many muscles,” says Drudi, adding, “It’s OK to use your hands and gradually try to rely less on your arms to assist you.”

Upper-Body Exercises

Use small hand weights or even soup cans to add challenge and build muscle. Do five to 10 each to start.

  • Bicep curls
    1. Hold your arms at your sides.
    2. Bend elbows to a 90-degree angle.
    3. Pause and slowly straighten your arm, lowering the weight.
  • Lateral raise
    1. Sit with your arms at your sides and a weight in each hand.
    2. With your thumbs facing toward the ceiling and your elbows slightly bent, raise the weights so your arms are parallel to the floor, like an eagle opening its wings.
    3. Slowly lower the weights to the starting position.
  • Front raise
    1. Sit with a weight in each hand.
    2. Position your arms at your side.
    3. Slowly raise the dumbbells up, with your palm facing the floor, keeping your arms straight, until your arms are parallel to the ground.
    4. Slowly return to the starting position.

Both Drudi and Chodat encourage patients to build these simple exercises into their daily routines. “It’s hard to commit to a focused exercise regimen,” Drudi says. “So find simple ways to make sure you’re moving throughout the day.”

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