Online workouts for seniors and how to pick the right one for you

Expert advice on how to stay active, fit and safe indoors.

Expert advice on how to stay active, fit and safe indoors

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

While Canadians practice different forms of social isolation — from social distancing to quarantine — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, it's especially for older Canadians who are more vulnerable. But physical exercise is still very important for maintaining physical and mental health. Fortunately the internet is full of videos explaining the principles of fitness, how to do specific exercises, and even full workouts online. But figuring out what to do and how to do it safely can be tricky.

That's why we reached out to Stuart McGill, professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo and founder of Backfitpro. He's worked with professional athletes, clients of all ages, and has even provided CBC Life with a seven-day workout cycle suitable for older Canadians. We asked him what the basic elements that any fitness regime for seniors should include, and what to keep in mind when choosing new activities right now in order to get the most benefit while staying safe and avoiding injury.

His advice is followed by a roundup of online resources to help you get started.

Match your workout to your capabilities, consider chronic conditions and medications

According to McGill, "Every health system in the body requires exercise for optimal health. It's the key to aging well." However, what kind of exercise you need will vary from person to person. "The category of 'seniors' includes a huge range of people, abilities and capabilities," explains McGill. "There are incredibly active seniors and some who are challenged to simply move." Because there are such a wide range of capacities involved, it's essential to choose a fitness program that's suited to the individual. Ideally, says McGill, "The person prescribing or recommending exercise would be a very well-trained trainer or kinesiologist who has assessed the trainee." If you can, McGill recommends consulting a personal trainer who can tailor a program to your needs and monitor your progress.

But if this isn't possible, McGill offered these three guidelines ensure your workouts are best suited to your capabilities:

Lightly challenge your capabilities without exceeding them: Every person has their own personal set of physical capacities. Operating within them, says McGill, "is beneficial. It makes us stronger rather than crossing the tipping point of making us sore and weaker." 

Stop before you get sore: This is important not only because you risk injury, but because it'll take longer to recover and you'll miss workouts in the meantime. "Never train until you're sore. Train in smaller increments more often. More progress is made this way, especially when you're older." If you feel sore after a workout or the next day, reduce the challenge by reducing the load, or reduce the session duration by breaking up the workout into smaller bits and spreading the exertion over a couple of days. This reduces the need for a long recovery. A good indicator is that you feel better after a training session, rather than feeling worse.

Increase the challenge slowly: When you exercise, you'll adapt. You'll become stronger and a more powerful dose of exercise becomes appropriate. But increase that dosage slowly. As McGill puts it, "One of the rules of fitness is: don't increase the challenge in large steps. They should be small, graded steps where increases in load, or duration, are never larger than 10 per cent."

In addition to this advice on matching exercise to capability, McGill also mentioned two other important considerations.

Chronic health issues: McGill points out that many seniors may already suffer from issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, or respiratory issues. Chances are they're already under the advice of professionals to manage these conditions and they should be consulted when embarking on a new fitness regime.

Medications: Many common medications can upset one's sense of balance. McGill recommends taking this into consideration as well to reduce the risk of a fall.

A framework for fitness

According to McGill, any well-rounded fitness program for seniors has to address four components: balance; mobility; strength; and endurance. These are factored into the seven-day training cycle he recommends.

If you're working out at home, it's not necessary to work every one of these components in every session. You can break them up throughout the week, but be sure to consider all four in your overall regime.


Balance is especially important when aging as falling becomes a more serious health risk. However, a lot can be done to test, maintain, and improve balance.

This video explains some exercises for improving balance.


Most people lose mobility with age. According to McGill, two of the key areas to work on are the upper back and shoulders and the hips. He recommended stretches for each of these areas:

Upper back and shoulders: Stand with your back against the wall. See if you can get your backside and head to touch. Then put your arms up against the wall. If this is difficult, face the wall and stand about two foot-lengths away. Walk your hands up the wall and reach overhead.

Hips: Stand in a lunge. Raise the arm on the same side as your back leg until you feel a stretch in your hip.


Strength training for seniors should consist of at least one of each of these kinds of movements: a push; a pull; a squat; a carry.

Push: Incline push-up

Stand two or three feet away from a counter, and put your hands on it. Lower and raise yourself with a pushing motion. If that's going well, proceed to a push-up on the ground from your knees, then a full push-up.

Pull: Counter row

Put one hand on the counter and lean forward on an incline keeping your back straight. The other arm should be hanging down and holding a light weight. Pull it upwards and lower it to work your back. The movement should be in your shoulder and arm and not in your torso.

Squat: There are lots of squat variations. The trick is finding versions that work for you. McGill says even getting up out of a chair counts in this category. If you're more advanced, you can do bodyweight squats or even weighted squats. Some examples of chair-based squat exercises are demonstrated in this video.


Endurance refers to cardiovascular conditioning. This can be any activity that gets your heart rate up, such as walking, biking, or aerobics. The video suggestions below include plenty of ways to work on your endurance at home.

Online fitness videos

These are some follow-along workouts for seniors. When trying these workouts, remember to look for exercises that lightly challenge your capabilities without going beyond them.

The National Institute for Aging provides a lot of great resources for seniors fitness, including different playlists for sample workouts; stretching; balance; strength; and instruction on specific exercises. Click here for their channel page with all the videos.

Here's one 60-minute sample workout that has a bit of everything:

Senior Fitness with Meredith is another YouTube channel with a broad variety of fitness resources with seniors. Here's a sample workout for posture, balance, and stretch.

Jane Fonda is a fitness icon who never hung up her leg warmers. Many of her videos can be found here. Below are two short "Level 1" and "Level 2" workouts.

Yoga is a great way to stay limber and mobile. Here are some yoga classes designed specifically for seniors. Do Yoga With Me is a Canadian YouTube channel with classes geared specifically to seniors. Here are two:

Curtis Adams is an enthusiastic and fun fitness instructor with a YouTube channel directed at seniors. Below is a sample workout for strength, cardio and core.

Doug Schrift is a physical therapist and geriatric specialist. His channel, Eldergym,aims at "helping seniors become strong and stable even if they have never exercised before." Below is the first video in a 5-day fitness challenge.

Clifton Mark writes about philosophy, psychology, politics, and other life-related topics. Find him @Clifton_Mark on Twitter.

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