The American Senior Fitness Association presents Experience!

January 16, 2008              

Table of Contents

  • Come Sit for a Spell (Introduction to special issue)
  • Progressing from Seated Exercise (Training approaches)

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Come Sit for a Spell

Seated ExerciseModern chair-seated workouts
offer a lot more than gentle stretching and range-of-motion activity. Participants in well designed programs make gains not only in flexibility and mobility, but also in muscular strength, balance and coordination, and cardiovascular health. Chair routines can be energetic and demanding. As one experienced senior fitness instructor said, "Believe me, it is quite a workout I put them through even though they are sitting!" In some cases, participants attain performance levels that warrant moving beyond chair-seated work. How is the best way to proceed when the fitness venue is a group exercise-to-music class? That is the topic of today's special issue of Experience!   

Although the following information is aimed at fitness professionals, it will also prove interesting to mature adult exercise enthusiasts.

Progressing from Seated Exercise

Chair-seated exercise
is ideal for certain fitness participants. It can provide a gentle reintroduction to working out for sedentary persons seeking to reclaim a physically active lifestyle. For persons with sensory or balance problems and for those at an elevated risk for bone fracture, it provides an extra measure of safety. It is, of course, invaluable for wheelchair users and for individuals who are largely non-ambulatory. Also, for those who may be self-conscious or lack confidence in their ability to exercise successfully, chair-seated work can be the perfect means for improving self-efficacy. Moreover, in the hands of accomplished fitness professionals, chair workouts are healthful and effective while providing plenty of novelty and fun for all involved.

The American Senior Fitness Association (SFA) has long recognized chair-seated exercise as a viable older adult physical activity option. SFA publishes Seniorcise, a how-to text on the subject, and endorses several responsible chair-exercise plans including those produced by Mary Ann Wilson, RN, of Sit and Be Fit. SFA's Senior Fitness Instructor and Long Term Care Fitness Leader educational training programs both include model videos that demonstrate sound chair-exercise methods. Therefore, none of the information provided below should be misinterpreted as minimizing the value of this beneficial type of exercise.

With Chair SupportEven so, sometimes group-exercise instructors make an observation that their chair-seated participants have progressed so much that they need to advance from a chair-seated format. Of course, you can always direct any high-performing client into another more vigorous class and continue running your seated class as usual for the others. But what if the group as a whole has progressed? Whereas some participants may have reached higher fitness levels than others, clearly all are ready for a greater challenge including some work independent of their chairs. SFA has received a number of inquiries from instructors asking how to introduce new programming for groups who are "outgrowing" their chair-based routines.

This can be a tricky situation for instructors because they have labored long and hard to make their chair workouts exciting and physically worthwhile for participants -- and it's worked. Indeed, it has worked so well that the group now loves its routine even as the instructor knows it needs to change! Meanwhile, aware of the sociological benefits of older adult group exercise, the instructor has encouraged the members to bond and count on the class as a social outlet and support group -- and that's worked too. Lasting friendships have been forged, a positive team spirit prevails, and the members want to stay together as a group.

What to do? With a group that is progressing as described above, even when characterized by mixed performance levels, it isn't hard to advance from seated to standing work. Below are some tips to facilitate the transition. They are written from the perspective of making a total change from all chair work to no chair work. However, as you will see, you could choose to make a complete change-over (totally abandon chair work), make only a partial change-over (continue using chairs during part of each workout), or even use chairs on some days and not on other days for variety's sake. The following ideas will help you create the format and schedule design that works best for your unique group:

With Wall SupportInstead of making a drastic change from all-seated to all-standing activity in one day, try gradually introducing more and more standing work until you have completed the conversion over a period of weeks. For example, you can begin by replacing seated leg lifts with standing ones; simply have clients move behind their chairs and touch their chair-backs for balance support while performing leg work. For knee lifts they'll stand with their sides to the chair-back; for leg curls and side lifts they can face the chair-back. Later you can have them remain standing after that and perform biceps curls and other arm and chest exercises, with or without dumbbells or resistance bands, in order to extend the length of standing time and gradually condition them to it.

While the chairs are still in partial use, you can have clients stand beside them to perform warm-ups and/or cool-downs. You can even perform part of a warm-up or cool-down seated and part standing. The same is true of aerobics, so long as the standing work remains completely in place so that chairs don't become a safety hazard.

One option during the transition period is to perform seated work (or some mixture of seated and standing work) at the start of a workout, then move to a standing position for aerobics and the remainder of the class. This works well when clients will "travel" about during aerobics. In that case, the aerobics area must be cleared of chairs. Also, you may wish to complete the muscle conditioning work before beginning the aerobics segment. If safe on an individual basis, moving one's chair to the side of the room away from the aerobics floor can become a part of the workout.

During the transitional period, design workouts to flow reasonably smoothly (just so that you don't have your clients moving back and forth too much between sitting-standing-sitting-standing-down-up-down-up, etc.). After you dispense with chairs, keep the same guideline in mind if you plan to utilize floor exercises. Excessive up-down-up-down change could feel tedious to some participants and could make others dizzy.

While transitioning, you can have some fun mixing and matching both seated and standing exercises to produce a well-balanced workout session. The following SFA resources contain detailed exercise instructions: the Quality-of-Life Fitness book (mainly standing and floor work), the Adella in Jamaica video (mainly standing work), and the Movin' Out Senior Style video (a rich mix of seated, standing, and floor work). We recommend them for gaining creative ideas along with prudent safety precautions. They'll also continue lending inspiration once your change-over to standing work has been completed.

It may be that some of your clients will not welcome change, much preferring their familiar all-seated routine. Or perhaps some lower-performing participants may "run out of steam" sooner with the new format. If so, it is possible to provide choice perpetually by keeping some chairs set up in an area of the room where those who wish can perform seated versions of the standing exercises. (Make sure they're safely away from standing clients' traffic patterns.) Doing a seated version is easy with most muscle conditioning exercises such as arm and leg raises, and most standing stretches allow for simple-to-substitute seated trunk and limb extensions. With aerobics, sitting clients can usually "march" in place in their chairs while performing the same arm movements as the standing participants. Occasionally you might need to describe or physically demonstrate a seated alternative for a given standing exercise. Another option is to team teach, which frees up one instructor to lead standing exercise and choreography while another shows seated alternative movements. The Movin' Out Senior Style video neatly portrays these techniques if you'd like to see them incorporated into a real classroom.

Likewise, some standing participants may retain a need for the physical (or even psychological) safety net that balance support provides during strength and flexibility work. This is easily supplied by having them stand next to a wall in case they need to touch it during their standing stretches and/or muscle conditioning exercises.

When you change over from seated to standing aerobics you may need to lengthen your cool-down somewhat. In any case, make certain that your clients always perform a thorough, effective cool-down. If they do their aerobics standing they will need to do their post-aerobic cool-down standing (or, at minimum, the first five minutes of their post-aerobic cool-down).

It is gratifying to an instructor when seated clients have progressed to the point of advancing from their chairs. Here at SFA we always say, "Chair-seated work is an excellent form of physical activity. However, don't put people in chairs -- or keep them there -- unless there's a good reason for it." Graduating to work that requires bearing one's own body weight may promote greater bone health, and it can expand the opportunity to pursue additional balance and functional fitness training activities. In addition, the versatility of trying fresh moves in a new position holds out the promise of increased enjoyment and motivation for clients and instructor alike!

(Editor's note: As previously stated, seated exercise is just right for some fitness participants. With that in mind, the next two issues of Experience! will present a series of effective chair-seated activities for improving strength, flexibility, mobility, stability, and overall physical fitness.)

Experience! readers: Thank you for your interest and questions. Due to the high volume of contacts SFA receives, we cannot respond to individual queries or comments. However, the newsletter does address frequently asked questions and topics of vital interest to our members.

Free SFA basic membership: If you aren't already a member of the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA), just sign up online at There are no fees or membership dues. And, we don't give out our members' personal information to others! When you join SFA, you'll receive our e-newsletter "Experience!" which will bring you older adult fitness news, research, and wellness tips.

Fitness and health professionals: You may distribute copies of Experience! to your exercise clients and patients as a free newsletter service. Copies of Experience! or excerpts therefrom must always ascribe credit to the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA). To fulfill that requirement, include the complete banner (title information at the top of each newsletter) as well as all post-newsletter notes, messages, copyright information, and the SFA logo.

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