Geriatric Physical Therapy and Types of Exercises for Older Adults

Physical therapy is particularly important for adults ages 65 and older as muscles and joints tend to lose strength and stability over time. This change can negatively impact older adults' independence in performing daily tasks and movements, like changing positions, standing, walking, and going up and down stairs.

Learn about the types of physical therapy that can benefit older adults.

physical therapist assisting elderly man walking in parallel bars

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What Is Geriatric Physical Therapy?

Geriatric physical therapy is a form of physical therapy specifically geared toward older adults and their unique issues and challenges. Geriatric physical therapy takes into account that older adults tend to become less active over time, experience a decrease in muscle strength, coordination, and reaction timing, and have a lower tolerance for physical activity. 

Geriatric physical therapy is different from other types of physical therapy because it focuses more on building strength and endurance in older adults to help in the following ways:

  • Keeping active
  • Preventing deconditioning (reversal of previous conditioning)
  • Preventing muscle atrophy (the wasting away of muscles)
  • Decreasing the risk of falls and related injuries
  • Maintaining independence in performing daily activities

Geriatric physical therapy can be performed in a variety of settings, including:

  • Hospitals and clinics on an outpatient basis
  • Inpatient healthcare facilities like nursing homes and rehabilitation centers, as well as assisted living facilities
  • At home, which is especially helpful for those with mobility challenges who have difficulty getting out

Most geriatric physical therapy is performed on an outpatient basis and covered by Medicare Part B. Home care services are also covered under Medicare Part B, while inpatient services are covered under Medicare Part A. For older adults not covered under Medicare, physical therapy can also be partially or fully covered by commercial insurance plans and state-funded Medicaid plans based on medical necessity.

Additional Senior Rehabilitation 

Other rehabilitation services for older adults to restore health and optimal physical functioning include:

  • Neurological physical therapy to treat neurological conditions like strokes, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease
  • Cardiac rehabilitation to improve endurance and restore proper cardiac functioning after a heart attack or heart surgery
  • Occupational therapy to restore fine motor control and functional hand use to complete activities of daily living

Stretches and Equipment for Seniors 

Geriatric physical therapy generally consists of a variety of exercises that improve strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance to aid in activities and movements and prevent overall deconditioning. Exercises typically include:

  • Lower body stretches, especially for the lower back, hamstrings, and hip flexors, to promote good mobility and joint alignment and to prevent tight muscles or stiff joints from interfering with proper muscle activation
  • Endurance training to keep the heart and lungs healthy and to improve circulation using cardiovascular equipment like treadmills and stationary bikes
  • Lower body strengthening exercises that target the glutes and quads (muscles in the thighs and buttocks) to maintain strength, such as sit-to-stands, squats, step-ups, leg lifts, and bridges
  • Balance exercises to help you maintain your stability when standing, walking, and changing directions, including static balance exercises on flat and uneven surfaces, weight-shifting exercises, marching, and tandem walking heel to toe

Geriatric physical therapy includes body weight exercises to help improve your mobility. If equipment is used, usually only light weights or bands are provided to supply increased resistance without overloading joints.

Physical Activity Tips 

Physical activity is important for people of any age, but it's especially important for older adults over 65 to prevent deconditioning and to maintain functional strength, endurance, and range of motion for everyday activities. An increased sedentary lifestyle (sitting or lying down for long periods of time) in older adults can quickly lead to weakness and muscle atrophy, poor balance, chronic pain, poor activity tolerance, and increased risk of falls.

Adults ages 65 and older should aim to do something physical every day, even if it is just light activity like walking around your home, cooking, or cleaning. Performing exercises that improve strength, balance, and flexibility should be done at least two days a week.

You also should aim to complete at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity over the course of an entire week. Moderate intensity activity includes brisk walking, hiking, aerobics, bike riding, dancing, and sports and recreational activities.

Summary

Geriatric physical therapy focuses on helping older adults strengthen the muscles they need to complete everyday tasks, such as walking, climbing stairs, and shifting positions. Attending geriatric physical therapy can therefore help older adults remain independent and prevent other conditions that may occur from lack of physical activity, such as muscle atrophy.

A Word From Verywell

Staying active and exercising is key to aging healthily and preventing deconditioning and chronic conditions that worsen with inactivity. Attending geriatric physical therapy can help jump-start you into a more active lifestyle. Physical therapy can provide you with useful exercises and tips to improve your strength, flexibility, and balance, which will help in your everyday activities at home.

Frequently Asked Questions 

How does geriatric physical therapy help older adults?

Geriatric physical therapy helps older adults regain the muscle strength, balance, and coordination needed to improve their ability to walk, their overall mobility and level of functioning, and their independence so they can perform everyday tasks.

What exercises are good for older adults? 

Good exercises for older adults help provide strength, stability, balance, and power to complete everyday movements such as getting up from a chair, going up and down stairs, and walking. Specific muscle groups that may be targeted include the quadriceps and glutes. These are activated through a variety of exercises, including standing up and sitting down in a chair, step-ups, bridges, clamshells, leg lifts, and balance exercises.

What exercises should older adults avoid? 

To avoid injury, older adults should not participate in strenuous exercises that involve heavy lifting and high impact. Exercises should be performed slowly and with good control. Also, they should be completed using only body weight or with light resistance to encourage proper joint movement and muscle activation without putting stress on muscles, tendons, or joints. 

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  1. National Health Service. Physical activity guidelines for older adults. Updated October 8, 2019.