Using Kettlebells with the Elderly

“Oh My! Your bowling ball sprouted ears!” 

This was my welcome as I walked into Patty’s apartment with a 25-pound kettlebell.  Patty is an 87-year-old physical therapy patient of mine who is sharp as a tack but is having some problems with balance. 

Patty had no idea why I brought in a 25-pound ball of iron into her apartment.  You may be thinking the same thing.

My name is Dustin Jones and I am a home health physical therapist.  I mainly work with elderly individuals in their 80+’s that have a very difficult time leaving their homes. 

My goal with all of my patients are to make sure that they can continue to live in their home.  In my field, reaching this goal rarely involves kettlebells.  Yet, the more I use kettlebells, the more I see the applicability of “the handheld gym” for all walks of life.

The tool that helps elite athletes reach their high-level goals is the same tool that can help the elderly be able to get out of bed without help, get up from the ground in case of a fall, or be able to climb their stairs.

Why use kettlebells with the elderly?

Whether you desire to age well or want to care for an elderly loved one, consider these three specific reasons (of many!) why the kettlebell is a very effective tool: 

1. Develops Bone Density & Muscle Mass

As we age, bones get brittle and muscles get smaller. It’s a fact of life. These two factors are common contributors to falls and fractures in the elderly. However, we have the potential to slow down that process.  If done wisely, using kettlebells can stimulate bones to become stronger and muscles to become larger. This adaptation builds resilience to injury and strength that can prolong one’s quality of life.

2. Improves Posture

Nearly every patient I work with has a spine that matches the curvature of their recliner.  This poor posture can make it difficult to breathe well, limit strength, and impair balance.  Unfortunately, there’s only so much one can improve on their posture after battling gravity for 80-100 years.

Yet, when you put a weight in someone’s hands that pulls them into more of a slouched posture, their body has the potential to self correct and stand up taller.  If this is done consistently, and the person stays away from the blackhole of the recliner, their posture has potential to improve.

The self-correcting aspect of kettlebells is especially beneficial for those that may have problems with communication.  You can yell at someone with advanced dementia, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s to “Stand taller!” until you’re blue in the face, and nothing will change.  Then, you put a kettlebell in their hands, and they grow 3 inches.  The kettlebell can provide a person with intrinsic feedback to help them improve their posture.

3. Improves Heart Health

A common trait of the elderly, especially in certain disease processes, is that they sloooowwww down.  Now, we have all heard the importance of regular aerobic activity. The CDC recommends “2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week.”  This dosage has been proven to be very effective for heart health.  However, what if the person cannot move quickly enough to get up to a “moderate-intensity”?  Better yet, what if the person is scared to move quickly, even if it’s a seemingly safe activity?

There are several variables one can manipulate to get the heart rate and respiratory rate to increase to a beneficial “moderate-intensity”.  My favorite is to put a kettlebell in someone’s hand.  Even with standing, a kettlebell increases muscular recruitment and places more of a metabolic demand on the body.  This can raise the heart rate and respiratory rate to a level where the person will see some gains.

Some Considerations When Using Kettlebells with the Elderly

First and foremost, individuals in their 80+’s should consult their primary care provider and movement specialist for clearance when wanting to engage in a new physical endeavor.  Once someone has been cleared and deemed appropriate for physical activity at home, I follow these guidelines:

  • Monitor blood pressure and heart rate pre & post activity
  • Don’t expect perfect form
    • At MoveStrong Kettlebellswe pursue good form before we load a movement.  However, it can be unrealistic to expect good form or posture from someone that has 80+ years of experience on this Earth.  With this population, loading a movement prior to achieving perfect form may be more beneficial.  One may need to pursue the benefits of loaded movement while being careful with the amount of load to limit risk of injury.
  • Stay close and communicate
    • Constant communication is key to check for any cognition changes, lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, etc.  Looking at blood pressure and heart rate are not enough.  Staying close to the person also gives you an advantage in case you need to support them.

Three Simple Lifts

1. KETTLEBELL CARRIES

My favorite lift to use with my patients.  Whether done while standing or walking...one bell or two bells...suitcased or racked...kettlebell carries are a very effective activity that can provide big gains for people in a simple way.  See this blog post demonstrating kettlebell carry variations (I mainly utilize Variations 1-5 with my elderly patients.)

2. GOBLET CHAIR SQUATS

Many people in old age have a very difficult time getting up from the chair, bed, or toilet without using their arms for assistance.  This is commonly due to the fear of falling from shifting their weight too far forward.

A lack of a forward weight shift makes it nearly impossible to come up from sitting.  Try it yourself.  Sit on your couch and try to stand up without leaning forward.  Now, shift forward and get your nose over your toes and stand up in one motion.  Much easier, right?

A kettlebell in the goblet position helps individuals shift their weight forward allowing them to come up to standing.  Starting with a relatively heavier weight makes it easier for the person to shift their weight.  As they progress, lighten the load in hope of getting to no weight.  It’s very empowering for people to experience this progression as they can tangibly see themselves get stronger which results in newly found confidence in their physical abilities.

3. KETTLEBELL DEADLIFT

Think of all the times you pick your shoes up off the ground or clean up the floor after a kid.  Now imagine if that simple movement of lowering your center of mass scared you to death.  This is the case with many of my patients as bending forward feels like a kamikaze nosedive to the floor.  The deadlift pattern helps tremendously with one’s ability to pick things up off the ground in a safe manner.

It’s helpful to start with teaching the hip hinge pattern in standing.  Many elderly folks are stuck in a rounded position in their thoracic spine that has little potential to improve.  So, focus should be shifted towards maintaining a neutral lumbar spine and movement from the hips.  As this becomes habit, adding very light weight is acceptable.  However, loading this pattern with too much weight is unwise as many peoples’ spines are stuck in a flexed position.  This puts people at risk for vertebral fractures.  For this reason, I typically don’t go much heavier than the heaviest objects my patients need to pick up from a lower surface.  This is typically their heaviest cast iron skillet or dutch oven.

In conclusion…

I’m a firm believer that kettlebells can have their place in most people’s lives, especially the elderly.  I hope this post helps you see the scalability and adaptability of the kettlebell.  Whether someone is young and fit or old and gray, the kettlebell can help in improving the health of individuals in a very efficient, effective, and impactful way.

Keep swingin’!

Guest post by Dustin Jones, PT, DPT, CSCS, and HKC.