Ever notice how the older adults in your life might struggle to get up from a chair or out of a car? As you get older, it’s essential to keep your muscles strong so you can manage everyday activities and stay independent. And one of the most important muscle groups to focus on is the hips.
“Our hip muscles are large, powerful muscles that help control our trunk and guide the rest of our lower extremities,” said Joseph (Joey) Davis, a physical therapist with Banner Health. “Being strong keeps you capable of getting up from the ground, walking and taking care of your home and family.”
This area of the body includes the gluteal muscles—the muscles in your butt—which are made up of three separate muscles, your gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. “All three work together to stabilize your body when you’re standing on one leg during walking. They also allow you to sit and stand from chairs, pick up objects from the ground and be independent,” Davis said.
Weak hip muscles can make it hard for you to stand, squat, bend, walk and climb up or down stairs. And since your hips help stabilize your body, weaker hips can put you at higher risk of falling and hip fractures.
Why you might have weaker hips as you get older
After age 30, muscle mass slowly starts to decline. But you can slow the decrease and even maintain a lot of your muscle strength by staying active. Davis said, “I often tell people that most of our abilities are on a ‘use-it-or-lose-it principle’.” Your body needs to work to adapt to stresses to stay strong. But it’s never too late to exercise and work to maintain or improve your strength.
What seniors can do to strengthen their hips
Davis recommends choosing exercises that support the activities you do in your everyday life. For example, squats and deadlifts can help you build the strength you need to pick up a bag of groceries or lift a grandchild.
And don’t think you have to go to the gym and work out with weight machines for 30 to 60 minutes, multiple days, every week. “There seems to be a popular trend where people think that the only way to get in shape or to improve is by exercising heavily and constantly, and that just isn’t true,” Davis said. “You can improve the strength and ability of your hip muscles with light to moderate exercise just two to three times per week.”
You can use your body weight, hand weights, weight machines or resistance bands. Start with light effort and build up to more effort. Be sure to include at least one rest day between your strength-training days.
Here are a few exercises you can try that don’t require any equipment, just your body weight.
- Bridges. Lie on your back with your feet flat and your knees bent. Keep your arms alongside your body—your fingers should be close to your heels. Tighten your glute muscles and slowly lift your hips. Keep your back straight—don’t arch it. Hold for three seconds, then lower your hips. Repeat this exercise 10 times
- Chair sit to stand. Sit in a chair (a firm one, like a dining room chair). Lean forward so your nose is over your toes, then stand upright. Once you’re standing, squeeze your glutes, hold for one second, then slowly sit back down. Repeat 10 times. You may need to use your arms at first, but as you build strength, you should be able to perform this exercise using only your legs.
- Standing hip abduction. Stand in front of a table, counter or chair for support. Lift one leg out to the left side, keeping it straight. Don’t lean your body to the side. Hold your leg out for one second, then bring it back down to the floor. Repeat on the other side and lift each leg 10 times
- Hip marches. Sit in a supportive chair with your feet flat on the floor and your back against the chair. Lift one knee as high as you can toward the ceiling, hold for one second, and lower it. Repeat with the other knee and lift each leg 10 times.
- Fire hydrant. Get into a tabletop position on all fours, with your hands below your shoulders and your knees below your hips. Lift one knee out to the side at a 90-degree angle. Hold for one second, then lower. Repeat with the other knee and lift each leg 10 times.
When to consult a professional about your hip exercises
It’s always a good idea to consult a medical professional before you start a new exercise program. If you have an underlying health condition, are unsure of where or how to start, or have concerns about your balance, consult a doctor or physical therapist to determine the best way to start.
If you’re comfortable getting started on your own, begin slowly and increase the number of exercises you perform, your intensity and the frequency of your workouts gradually.
The bottom line
As you get older, you lose muscle strength throughout your body. But strength-training exercises can help counteract that loss. Strengthening your hips is one of the most crucial things you can do to keep active and independent.
Need advice on how to stay strong as you get older?
Schedule an appointment with a primary care provider.