How to Run Group Exercise Sessions for the Elderly

How to Run Group Exercise Sessions for the Elderly

User Profile By Susan Berg   United States

Found In: Activities Articles Exercise Coronavirus: Covid-19

We all know that exercise is good for us but for some reason, the older we get, the less we do. Contrary to popular belief, poor balance and muscle weakness has a lot more to do with inactivity than age.
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We all know that exercise is good for us but for some reason, the older we get, the less we do. Contrary to popular belief, poor balance and muscle weakness has a lot more to do with inactivity than age.

Implementing a regular exercise routine for residents can have a dramatic impact on their health and well being. There will always be those who choose not to participate, all you can do is try.

Make sure you run an exercise program at least twice a week to help residents maintain their best physical function.

The Benefits of Exercise for the Elderly

The old adage is true: Use or Lose it!

Regular exercise is proven to:

  • Improve immune function
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Boost metabolism
  • Reduce the risk of serious conditions
  • Improve balance and flexibility
  • Enhance mood and self confidence
  • Improve sleep
  • Increase Independence

Getting Resident to Participate

Convincing those who are apprehensive to participate in group exercises can be a challenge.

Here are some things you can try:

  1. Gently point out the benefits of exercise.
  2. Mitigate their fears - assure them that they are not too old or too weak and that there is no minimum skill level required. Remind them that getting started is the hardest part.
  3. Invite them to come along and watch an exercise session.

Make Group Exercises Fun with Props

Be enthusiastic and engaging when running group exercises - remember that positive energy is contagious!

Consider using props to add an element of fun to your sessions. Props also increases hand strength. You can use:

  • Scarves
  • Ribbons or streamers
  • Paper plates
  • Bottles
  • Maracas
  • Stretch bands
  • Hats
  • Balls
  • Resident made props
  • Or ask residents for suggestions - they could even do an arts and crafts project to make and decorate props.

For Example:

  • Decorate paper plates
  • Add ribbons to a bottle. You could add water to the bottles to make them heavier if you need to make the workout more challenging.

Use Music to Lift Spirits

Find suitable music to accompany your exercise routines. Music has the ability to lift spirits and put residents in the right frame of mind to move.

You could use background music or sing along music depending on your routine.

Keep Sessions Short

Residents may not have the endurance or desire for a long exercise routine so you may want to combine it with a sing a long or trivia questions after the routine or even in between exercises.

I prefer to use a shorter workout that can be repeated if the residents really enjoy it.

I like to have the residents count forwards and backwards to 10 or 12 by ones, twos or threes to easily add a cognitive aspect of the session.

You want to incorporate exercises using as many body parts as possible, including:

  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Arms
  • Hands
  • Legs
  • Feet

Tips for Running Group Sessions

Before starting a routine, remind the residents if they get tired or uncomfortable, to stop at any point.

Tell residents to do some kind of movement during an exercise even if they can not do the exercise as shown. Any motion is better than no motion.

Remember to face the residents positioning yourself so all can see you. Some experts say to stay in one spot so the residents can focus on your movements.

Alternatively, move around the room addressing residents by name who are having trouble, giving them necessary cues or assistance.

Take a short break after doing two or three exercises by having the residents slowly breathe in through their nose and out through their mouth two or three times.

Sample Exercise Routine

Here is a gentle and low impact seated chair exercise routine using props. Be aware that seated exercises may have contra-indications for some clients. Consult clinical staff before starting the session.

Take what suits your clients from the session below or devise your own program.

Start with simple stretches of arm and legs then begin the routine:


Ask residents to say hello to the person on your left and then repeat on the right side. Repeat two or three times on each side.

Look up and then look down to your lap or the floor. Repeat two or three times.

Pass out props - encourage residents to look at how pretty it looks when they move the props during an exercise (visual stimulation).

Arms and Legs

  • Arm raises
  • Bicep curls
  • Paddling a canoe
  • Rowing a boat (sing “Row, row, row, your boat”)
  • Swimming strokes
    • Front crawl
    • Breaststroke
    • Side stroke (add leg kicks to these if you wish)
  • Side arm raises
  • Front arm raises
  • Drawing a circle with arms stretched out to the side and then stretched out in front
  • Climbing a ladder - encourage use of both arms and legs
  • Hand clapping
  • Punching
  • Windshield wiper motion
    • Sing the first two or three lines of “In My Merry Oldsmobile” several times. Substitute the names of residents and /or types of cars if you wish.
    • Pretend you are pressing the gas pedal when you do the windshield wipers
  • Chopping wood
  • Waving
  • Waves in the ocean
  • Rocking a baby. Sing, “Rock a bye Baby”
  • Kicking from knee to toe
  • Moving legs to the sides
  • Throwing a basketball
  • Throwing a baseball. Sing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”.
  • Arm rolling forwards then backwards
  • Hammering the weasel down. Sing, “Pop Goes the Weasel”

Collect props.


  • Make hands move like a duck opening and closing his bill
  • Touch each finger to your thumb from pointer finger to pinky finger, one at a time, and back - two times
  • Pretend to flick water off your hands five times
  • Make a fist, hold and release - five times

End with Music & Games

End with marching and singing,
“When the Saints Go Marching In”

Pretend you’re riding a bike and sing,
“Bicycle built for Two”

Pretend you're riding a bike and sing
"Daisy, Daisy"

Play a short game of kickball, bat the balloon with your hands, or any other movement game of your choice.

Where to Find More Inspiration

You can find hundreds of ready made short exercise sessions on youtube! You can search for suitable ideas and inspiration for low and high funcitoniont residents.

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Comments   Post a Comment

David 7th Apr 2024
Do you have a list of songs to play during the session? Thank you so much for all the great ideas. :)
Susan 7th Apr 2024 Activity Director
Hi David
Thank you so much for your interest
This depends on the level of function of the group
Pick songs that get people moving
I like to have the participant sing songs
Make sure to use songs that the participants like
Bernadette 5th Sep 2022 Activity Director
This exercise for seniors has a great idea and very useful in my group exercises.
Thank you so much.
Talita 12th Sep 2022
Thank you so much for your feedback Bernadette!
Susan 22nd Mar 2022 Activity Director
Hi Kim
Thanks for sharing this information
Kim 20th Mar 2022 Community Life Memory Care
We use pool noodles cut in half in several ways. If we play balloon volleyball the noodle extends their reach. We also use them in general exercise i.e. side to side when they are rowing a canoe. If we are raising our arms right and left we hold the noodle to "touch the ceiling" . We practice "hand over hand to climb our noodle" squeezing as hard as we can.
Be sure to have a variety of colors on hand - it gives them a choice when they seldom get to pick something.
Gwyneth 20th May 2020 Volunteer
Hello Susan, reading your comments on group exercises, for most of my 30 years volunteering, that is what I have introduced to my clients, being musical and fortunate enough to be able to play the piano, and being an oldie myself, knowing lots and lots of old songs, i have found that this is the best remedy anyone can get. I remember sitting down with a lovely old man who had dementia, he could'nt remember that he had just drank a cup of tea, but when I played an old song for him, he knew all the words, people come to life, this is a good segment , one I believe in, thanks for getting it out there. I have quite a few funny stories, true ones,one being I play the piano at nursing homes and up at the local hospital, and one day I was playing the piano at the hospital and the Doctor came out and said" you had better come here more often my patients blood pressure has just gone down," and the other one was I was playing the piano at the local nursing home when the nurses brought a bed down from the ward and put it by the side of the piano, who was in it I could'nt see, he or she was covered up with a sheet, I started playing a song, a Scottish one, when all of a sudden the body in the bed rose up, shouted "I love that one", frightened me to death, and then lay down again, it was really funny, music does funny things to people. What a great life I have had volunteering and so pleased to be still be doing it.
Susan 21st May 2020 Activity Director
Hi again Gwyneth
Thank you for sharing this, you obviously made many people happy
I agree music is so important - it is wonderful that you were able to play the piano and do it as a volunteer.
Thank you thank you thank you
Madeline Beese 31st Mar 2020
Thank you for all the ideas I work for an adult day care center and need all the ideas I can get,
Solange 1st Apr 2020 Diversional Therapist
Hi Madeline, thank you for taking the time. Your feedback is really appreciated.
Susan 22nd Mar 2020 Activity Director
Yes Cathy
You are right
Cathie Land 21st Mar 2020
I believe "Daisy, Daisy" is "bicycle built for two" LOL fun song and Im going to try this in our Memory Unit exercise.

Daisy Bell
Daisy, Daisy give me your heart to do
I'm half crazy, hopeful in love with you
It wont take a stylish marriage
I cant afford the carriage
But you'll look sweet upon the street
on a bicycle built for two
Gwyneth 7th May 2020 Volunteer
Daisy Daisy is a very old song.

The words we sing at our Day Care Centre are:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do
I'm half crazy, all for the love of you
It won't be a stylish marriage
I can't afford a carriage
But you'll look sweet, up on the seat
Of a bicycle made for two

Whatever the words it's still fun.
Gina 18th May 2019 Activity Coordinator
love the article on exercises for the elderly. I'm getting ready to start a chair yoga class and love all the pointers!!
Carol 17th May 2019
I bought small kid’s rubber balls for our seated exercise group. They roll them down the front of the legs to feet and back to lap, lift them overhead, around their trunks passing from hand to hand, between their knees and squeeze, under one foot rolling forward and back or in circles. Also use long wooden dowels with rubber stoppers on the end. Sitting you tip the stick forward and back, make circles, lift the stick up and down like spear fishing, paddle, write words in the floor, etc.
Zelda De Wet 16th May 2019
Wow, thank you for all the ideas.
I must start with group activities and doesn’t have a clue where to begin.
The elderly doi g exercises in the gym with bikes and treadmills but due to various work reasons we must steer away from the gym.
Any ideas please of what I can do to keep them interested will be appreciated.
Thank you.
Sherry 23rd Jan 2019 Activity Director
I teach chair exercises for three homes, three days a week. Each session is 20 minutes All that can participate, love it. We start with Yoga warmups, then start with the head, neck, arms, core, bending over, for the lower back, kicks, ankles and they circles, with legs extended. This is a B & B session, working on their bodies first, then their brains. They also love being challenged by the cognitive exercises and use many from this site. We wrap with stories from the "Chicken Soup" books and I make sure, I speak with each resident, individually. It is a win/win session.

York Retirement, Southern Orange County, California
Solange 23rd Jan 2019 Diversional Therapist
Hi Sherry, thank you for sharing. Congratulations on doing a wonderful job. Do you use music? What sort?
Barb 23rd Sep 2018 PCA
Excercise is such a great thing. i have my usual participates but try to get the residents out that sit in their rooms too much. Gotta make it interesting. Like the idea of frisbees. We use balls and have done paper plates and rubber bands. We always follow with a drink and then activity. That's why I Love this site. Have used so many things off here and the possibilities are endless. Thank You !!!
Talita 30th Sep 2018
Hi Barb, your exercise classes sound like a lot of fun! Thank you so much for your feedback and kind words, we appreciate it so much!
Sue 24th Apr 2019 Lifestyle Co-ordinator
Hi Barb
Could you explain how you use paper plates and rubber bands in your exercise group, I’d love to give this a try
Many Thanks
Barb 26th Apr 2019 PCA
Sue, I had found an exercise site on the internet which we would put onto a big TV screen. The lady used paper plates. We also have stretch bands which we just make up our own routine with. You can't have the music too fast or the residents do not like it but with a slow beat, they get the motion they need and everyone is more happy about attending class every day
Gaylene 21st Aug 2018 Activities Co-ordinator
We play and do actions to the Macarena. Hand, palms, shoulders,ears, tummy, hips, wiggle wiggle, clap. They love it. Also march to "When the saints come marching in" and the chicken dance sitting down. Lots of fun.
Darlene 6th Mar 2018 Activities Director
Do any of you offer a reward to the residents for participation in exercise groups? We were giving out "auction bucks" and then the residents could collect them to shop at a quarterly country store we put on. It had its up and downs and now we are looking for a different idea.
Solange 6th Mar 2018 Diversional Therapist
Hi Darlene, one idea is to focus on the social component of exercises. For many elders, socialising is as (or more some) important as the physical benefits. Have a novelty food or drink every week after the exercises (tea tasting, foreign biscuits and cookies). Also, invite an enthusiastic personal trainer to talk about the benefits of exercises and hopefully inspire your clients to keep coming back. Best wishes.
Shirley 21st Jan 2018 Retired
All exercises are good,we do them all,I was a dancer & play the Piano,the sitting on chairs go down well.hold legs up point toes down then up,down up.while legs are up twist ankles round & round each way.Gently,slowly raise arms up in front while breathing IN, lowering arms down Out,4 times. repeat to breathing IN, then move arms out to the sides holding the breath,breathing out with arms coming back to front & back down,4 times.Close eyes relax all muscles fold hands on lap,let shoulders drop,breath in &out a few times,this is the slowing down we use to finish Exercises.Use Music always, especially the old songs.
Talita 27th Jan 2018
Thanks Shirley
Nori 18th Jan 2018 Activity Director
Wow, this article and the suggestions in the comments are great! Thanks so much!

I "borrowed" an idea from an activity supply catalog and adapted it for our tenants: On a lightweight and large children's ball (solid color), I wrote different movement suggestions. For example: "Do the actions to one verse of "Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes" or "Shake hands with the neighbor to your right". Then we throw the ball to each other (gently!) and wherever the tenant's right thumb lands on the ball, he or she reads the printed suggestion underneath out loud and "leads" the action! All of this can be done while seated. Tenants can even kick the ball to each other, and then when they (or if they can't bend well, I) pick up the ball, whatever suggestion is under their right thumb, that's the action we do!
Talita 21st Jan 2018
Great ideas, thanks for sharing Nori!
Leslie 20th Oct 2017 Activity Assistant
Thank you! This is really good and will be very helpful!
Jacqulyn 22nd Sep 2017 Activity Program Coordinator
Thanks for the creative info! Just what we needed!
Edie 15th Sep 2017 Life Enrichment Specialist
I went to thrift stores and collected Frisbees as props. We pretend like we're driving and the frisbee is our steering wheel. We need to turn our necks to do our shoulder checks etc... There are a variety of other activities you can do with them as well. I also use thera-bands to strengthen and add variety. With a good joke at the beginning, good music throughout and a back rub at the end, it's a winning ticket. By offering variety and social interaction, I was able to take the group from 4 to 14 participants in 2 weeks time. You could also take PVC pipe, fill with sand and cap each end to create varying weight bars.
Residents love these!
Edie N.
Oshkosh, Wi
Solange 16th Sep 2017 Diversional Therapist
Wonderful Edie! Thank you for sharing!
Susan 13th Sep 2017 Activity Director
I was always a big proponent of exercise.
After a time I like to vary the routine to keep it fresh.
Kristin 12th Sep 2017 Activity Assistant 17 Years!
I loved the exercise article! I enjoy doing a morning and afternoon exercise session with my residents. I never thought of using props. What a great idea! Andi love the idea of singing the various songs and the counting. Excellant!!! I'll be eager to add new life to my routine! Thank you and I'm so enjoying all the wonderful ideas in this forum! :)
Darla 12th Sep 2017 Recreation and Rehab Manager
Thank you Susan.
We are always looking for ways to promote exercise program, and you have given good examples.

the recreation/activity staff at Columbia House
Janet 12th Sep 2017 Coordinator, Adult Day Center
This is great! Thanks so much!!
Susan 11th Sep 2017 Activity Director
Susan has submitted a new article: How To Run Group Exercise Sessions For The Elderly
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