Talking about improving your fitness levels at a time when you can’t leave the house to go to a tennis club or join a cycling group or dance class may seem strange. But the possibilities to exercise from your own home are almost unlimited.
Crucially, if you can keep your head around the technology, there’s nothing to keep you from the social aspect of sports, too, with live classes that you can participate in, apps that let you compete with friends and family, and social media where you can share your achievements.
You also do not need expensive fitness equipment. Just use what you have at home, for example with an arm dips chair or pantyhose instead of a fitness band (see box below).
Sir Sam Muir said there are unlimited options to practice at home (stock image)
With physical fitness closely linked to mental health – something we’ll explore in more detail later this week – it’s more important than ever when you’re socially isolated.
THE ‘GYM EQUIPMENT’ IN EVERY HOUSE
TIGHTS: Effective resistance bands when attached to a door handle or wrapped around a radiator. Tights in a loose, elastic loop that sits just above your knees will enhance the effectiveness of squats.
FOODBottles of water and baked bean cans can mimic dumbbells. Hold a large bag of potatoes to your chest to intensify the squats.
BOOKS: Hold a heavy book against your chest for squats, push over your head or cradle when you are on your back (knees bent and feet on the floor)
to intensify abdominal crunches.
BUCKETS: Fill two equal-sized buckets with sand or soil and thread a broom or mop handle through them to create a “bar bell” that can be used for deadlifts and overhead raises.
KITBAG: Fill an old kit bag with sheets and hang it on a tree (or inner beam) to use as a punching bag.
STAIR: Run up and down for a cardiovascular workout or use lower steps as an elevated platform for conditioning work (see stair training at nhs.uk).
CHAIR: Great for tricep dips, raised push-ups, inverted lunges, leg raises, and one-leg squats.
The good news is that it is never too late. Even if the last time you did something that could be considered active was decades ago, you can start today and now and it will really have life-changing effects.
Research from the University of Birmingham, published last year in the journal Frontiers in Physiology, looked at people in the 70s and 80s and found that those who had never participated in long-term exercise programs had exactly the same ability to build muscle as highly skilled athletes of comparable age.
No matter how old you are, you can still take advantage of the benefits of getting fitter. And fitness is more important as you age, no less.
If you’re not in shape in your 30s and 40s, you may not be able to run around on a football field or chase after your kids. But by the time you turn 80, being unfit can mean the difference between being able to live independently and not being able to. After all, if you’re not fit enough to go up the stairs or go to the toilet in time, it will have a fundamental impact on your quality of life.
When you are fit, you have a combination of energy, strength and freedom of movement. Your posture is stable and upright, whether sitting or standing, your body more resilient and your mind motivated and alert.
There are four aspects of fitness that work together to provide this combination. There is stamina, your cardiovascular powerhouse; strength, essential for your muscle strength, endurance and metabolic health; flexibility, so that muscles and joints do not stiffen, break or rub; and skill, which is actually about maintaining posture, balance and coordination.
Do something every day to increase all four.
Sir Muir Gray made these recommendations on how to train at home
Endurance: the heart of fitness
Activities that increase your heart rate and breathing help stimulate your heart and boost your circulation. These are called “cardiovascular” exercises and can include many “regular” activities, such as gardening or housework.
The recommendation for adults is a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, a minimum of five days a week, or about two and a half hours in total.
Moderately intense activity will leave you breathless, but still able to talk. You don’t have to do it all at once; you can spread your “daily dose” throughout the day, and your total throughout the week.
If you have been inactive, gradually work towards your goal. Start with mild activity, such as walking at a normal speed (which will only leave you breathless if you are very unfit), and increase it to moderate activity, such as brisk walking or jogging, for four weeks. Switch to more vigorous activity, brisk walking uphill (great for bone strength), or running for the next two to four months.
If you don’t have an outdoor area for walking or running, check out our list of online exercise routines (livelongerbetter.net) – all you need is a computer, a tablet or a phone with an internet connection to do an exercise lesson from your own sitting room.
All you need is a chair … and tights
TO TAKE OFF
Sit forward in a chair to strengthen wrists and arms. Extend the legs straight in front of you, heels on the floor and toes up.
Place your hands on the arms of the chair and lift your buttocks off the chair, keeping your legs straight. Lift and lower ten times.
For thighs and balance, sit at the front of the chair for a long time. Lean forward slightly with the feet just behind your knees.
Use your hands to push up and stand (you can put your hands on your thighs as you get stronger). Repeat ten times.
To work legs and glutes, stand sideways to an upright chair. Hold your right hand for support and extend your left arm for balance.
Point your toes and swing your right leg forward and then back ten times. Repeat on the other side.
To promote balance and stability, stand in an upright position and hold the chair back with both hands. Move your right foot to the side and back to the center.
Do the same with your left foot. Keep walking back and forth for about a minute.
STAND AND CURLS
To strengthen the biceps, stand with both feet in the middle of a band (or use tights) with feet slightly apart. Hold the arms at your sides and grasp the strap with the palms facing forward.
Bend the elbows and pull your fists to your shoulders and then relax. Repeat ten times.
Power: power to your elbow
Strength is the force generated by muscles that work to overcome a resistance. That can be the weight of something you lift or the resistance of an elastic band (or tights) that you stretch.
Over time, training against resistance makes you stronger and also improves your energy, metabolism, well-being, resilience and joie de vivre. Muscle strength is critical to prevent falls (which reduces the risk of fractures), as powerful muscles can correct a wobble before hitting the floor. This, in turn, protects your head from impact, saving many brain cells!
Muscle strengthening exercises also build bone strength, so fractures are less likely to fall – especially important for postmenopausal women, when bones and muscles lose strength.
If you already have weaker bones, muscle strengthening exercises and brisk walking are great ways to rebuild them.
And last but not least, stronger muscles stabilize the joints, make them more efficient and can help you better maintain your cardiovascular activity.
If you regularly use simple weights or a resistance band to train muscle groups, you will gradually increase their strength.
Over time, you will be able to lift heavier objects as you build to a new level of comfortable, maximum muscle strength. You may also notice that your muscles are firmer and tighter.
Since you use the muscles of your lower body to walk and dance, they usually don’t need as much reinforcement. But pay special attention to your upper body and abdomen (or core).
For upper limb strength
Dumbbells or weights are the right tools for both forearms and biceps. Exercise bands are also good, and so is the modest pressure! Make your own variations, but here are three starters:
- Stand upright, good posture, hands at your sides, each weighing 1 kg or 3 kg. Slowly lift your arms to your sides until they are horizontal and slowly lower them again – don’t lose control. Do this ten times, rest and repeat.
- With a weight in your right hand, stand up straight and let your hand hang next to your body. Bend your elbow until your forearm is upright, now slowly lower your hand down, always under control. Go to the left hand and repeat.
- Take the same weight in your right hand at shoulder height. Gently push up until your arm is straight. Count to ten and slowly lower it again. Repeat this five times and give the left arm the same treatment.
For core strength of the body
Lie on your back, hands behind your head. Bend forward, lift your head and shoulders six inches and hold that position, count to 20 if you can, or aim to build up to 20 seconds within a month if you can’t.
Second, with your hands at your sides, lift your feet 6 off the floor and keep your legs straight. Hold them for 20 seconds if you can, or build them up in a month. Then cross your legs ten times before slowly lowering them.
These exercises are good for the abs, help with posture and prevent back pain. They also reduce the risk of a hernia in the groin. If you already have a hernia, ask your doctor about the best exercise for you.
Suppleness: its ‘convenience’
Flexibility is the ease with which a joint moves through its entire range. It is not weak and depends on the correct muscle tension during rest or activity.
Stiffness is the opposite of flexibility and is one of the most common age complaints. As we age, we become more rigid with inactivity faster, but it can affect us well before our 60s if we are used to sitting for long periods. It is especially difficult for women, because the structure of connective tissue changes after menopause, making it less elastic.
For smooth shoulders
Circle your arms back and try to brush your ears as the arms pass. (If you have a frozen shoulder, you may not be able to do it at first, but try carefully.) Don’t hurt yourself; this is a deceptively simple yet challenging exercise. Repeat 20 times or build it up.
For a smooth neck
Move your head in a slow circular motion (don’t push it with your hands) and look left and right over each shoulder as if you were looking for a overtaking car. Don’t forget your pose: Picture a thread from the crown of your head to the ceiling. Stand upright, chin in (not like a turtle with its head forward and chin out).
For smooth hips
Lie on your back with your right knee bent and your right foot on the floor. Rest your left ankle over the knee of the bent leg. Gently push on the left knee and shake it off a bit. Do this ten times and repeat the exercise with the other leg.
For smooth knees
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Then bend your knees and hips and try to touch the floor with your fingertips without bending your back too much – a little bend is inevitable.
If you can do this, try laying your palms flat on the floor. (This should not cause any discomfort. If you put your palms on the floor, go back to the fingertips.)
Repeat ten times, then put your feet 3 farther apart and do another 10, then go another 10.
For hamstrings and calves
Keeping your back straight, bend forward until you feel your hamstrings (the muscles at the back of the thigh) stretch. Count to ten, relax and get up. Repeat five times.
Skill: keep control
The whole point of balance and coordination is to keep you upright, mobile and fall-free. So the first thing you need is to be alert.
Usually your brain controls your learned movements without you noticing. But if you don’t stay active, you lose the connections between nerve cells in your brain and spinal cord – it’s “use it or lose it.” Do nothing and you will be less able to restore your balance if you trip.
By checking your balance regularly, you can avoid problems further on. For example, the ability to stand on one leg is a good predictor of future brain health.
Here are a few suggested exercises. If you can do them, that’s great – keep it up! If you can’t, it suggests you may have a balance problem and you should talk to your doctor about it pretty quickly.
First check that the floor is not slippery and do not do this if you have been drinking alcohol in the past four hours.
For starters, stand on one leg with your eyes open and lift the other, holding it in the air for 30 seconds. Then try the other leg.
Can you pull out one minute on each leg before putting your raised foot back down? If so, try rotating your raised foot while standing on the opposite leg.
See if you can build up on each leg for a minute while rotating the other foot.
Try it one day with your raised leg bent at the hip and knee enough to hug that leg. Is it easier or more difficult?
Try it with your eyes closed after a week or two – but only if you’re in a safe place and not on a slippery floor. If you feel unsteady, open your eyes immediately.
There is no magical set of exercises and to avoid boredom it is very important to call the changes. I’ve given you some great ideas and favorites here, but there are some excellent websites that show others.
The key is to do at least ten minutes of these exercises every day for stamina, strength, skill and flexibility.
Sir Muir Gray is a public health advisor to the NHS and a professor of primary health care at Oxford University.
- Taken from his guides to living well: Sod Sixty, Sod Seventy, Sod Sitting: Get Moving and Sod It! Eat Well – all published by Bloomsbury (bloomsbury.com) for £ 12.99. © Muir Gray.