Elderly man's legs in a wheelchair

Leg Weakness in the Elderly

Leg weakness in the elderly can be the result of several things, so you shouldn’t automatically assume the worst if you or your loved one is experiencing leg muscle weakness. It can often come from a vitamin deficiency, which can be fixed by adding a supplement to your diet. Sometimes, leg weakness in the elderly is simply from the aging process and is medically known as sarcopenia. In this case, you can add certain exercises to your routine to strengthen your leg muscles. Certainly, sudden leg weakness can be a cause for concern and you should seek medical attention immediately. It really depends on when the weakness occurs and how quickly as to what will remedy the condition.

Sudden Leg Weakness in Elderly

As previously mentioned, if you experience sudden leg weakness, it can be an indication of a serious medical problem and requires immediate medical attention. Medical professionals define “sudden” leg weakness in the elderly as weakness that becomes noticeable over seconds, hours, days, or weeks, so even if you haven’t sought medical assistance for your leg weakness and it’s been a few weeks, you should still talk to a doctor.

Commonly, sudden leg weakness in anyone is due to a slipped disk in the back. You’ll typically notice a tingling or burning sensation in your legs in addition to weakness if a slipped disk is the culprit. This pain will usually worsen when you stand or sit and you may notice generalized weakness in other muscles as well.

Pinched nerves can also cause leg weakness in the elderly, but you’ll know if you have a pinched nerve because they are extremely painful. Radiating pain from your lower back into your hips and legs accompanies pinched nerves and can often be relieved through spinal manipulation. Be sure to choose a chiropractor or doctor of osteopathy (DO) who specializes in working on the backs of elderly people, since your bones may not be as strong as those of younger people.

Certainly, there are other, more serious causes of sudden leg weakness, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, peripheral neuropathy, ALS, spinal tumors, Parkinson’s disease, and others. But, don’t jump to conclusions if you experience sudden weakness in your legs. The cause of your weakness could be much more benign. However, you do want to seek urgent medical care to rule out these more serious possibilities.

What to Eat for Weak Legs in Elderly

A vitamin deficiency is one of the most common causes of weak legs, especially in older adults. In particular, lack of vitamin D is associated with muscle weakness and many older people suffer from a vitamin D deficiency because they don’t eat as many vitamin D-containing foods, don’t get as much sunlight as they used to, have thinner skin, and have decreased ability to absorb the vitamin from the foods they eat. Most people who suffer from a vitamin D deficiency experience what they refer to as “heavy legs” and notice that it’s more difficult to climb stairs and stand up from a chair.

Fortunately, a lack of vitamin D can be easily remedied through supplements and dietary changes. Foods that contain ample amounts of vitamin D include oily fish like salmon, herring, tuna, and sardines; egg yolks; mushrooms, cow’s milk, soy milk, orange juice, oatmeal, spinach, kale, white beans, yogurt, cheese, and okra, among others. 

Adults who are over the age of 71 should get at least 800 IU of vitamin D every day. This is an increase of 200 IU from the 600 IUs of vitamin D that people ages 70 and younger should receive. There is no danger of getting too much vitamin D from the foods you eat and the sunlight you’re exposed to, but you can get vitamin D toxicity if you take too high of a supplemental dose for a long period of time. For this reason, it’s important to have your blood levels of all vitamins checked on an annual basis, which is normally done as a part of a yearly physical.

Exercises for Weak Legs in Elderly

Most leg weakness in the elderly is the result of the aging process, which is not something you can prevent. As we get older, most of us become naturally less active, which causes our muscles to deteriorate. When a body doesn’t get enough exercise, fat replaces muscle and fat is no good for strength. Luckily, even if you’ve become mostly sedentary as you’ve aged, there are exercises that can help you regain muscle in your legs and get rid of that weak feeling. 

Ankle Circles

Ankle circles are a great way to warm up your legs and feet before exercising, but they’re also going to strengthen your ankles to help you stand longer and maintain better control when you walk. 

Step 1: Sit in a straight-backed, non-rolling chair in an upright position. 

Step 2: Keeping your right foot flat on the floor, raise your left knee and draw a circle in the air with your left foot. Make 20 circles.

Step 3: Lower your left foot slowly back to the floor.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 with your right foot. 

If you’re unable to raise your knee into the air to draw these circles, you can extend your knee outward instead. For an additional challenge, try this exercise while standing.

Knee Extension

Knee extensions are often used as an exercise to increase range of motion following knee surgery, but they are also great for keeping your joints flexible and strong and as such, are one of the best ways to combat leg weakness in the elderly.

Step 1: Sit up straight in a straight-backed, non-rolling chair with both feet flat on the ground.

Step 2: Lift and straighten (slowly) your right knee in front of you. Tilt your toes back toward you as much as you can, and hold for 10 seconds. 

Step 3: Slowly return your right foot back to the ground.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 20 times per leg.

Hip Marching

With hip marching, you’re strengthening your thighs and hip flexors, allowing you to walk faster and farther. Walking more will help you alleviate leg weakness in the elderly. You’ll also have the strength to pick up your feet and step over things that are in your way, which will help you avoid trips and falls.

Step 1: Sit up straight in a straight-backed, non-rolling chair with both feet flat on the ground.

Step 2: Slowly raise your left knee as high as you can.

Step 3: Slowly lower your left knee back to the ground.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times per leg.

Standing Knee Flexion

Hamstrings can weaken very quickly if you don’t use them. The standing knee flexion exercise strengthens your hamstrings and increases your ability to bend and flex your knees, thereby improving your walking motion. This improves balance and helps reduce the risk of falling.

Step 1: Stand up behind a straight-backed, non-rolling chair and hold onto it to keep your balance.

Step 2: Slowly lift your right foot behind you, bending your left knee backward. Attempt to bend your knee into a right angle, or come as close to a right angle as you can. Do not bend at the hip.

Step 3: Slowly return your right foot to the ground.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times per leg. 

Sit to Stand

If you do only one exercise to reduce leg weakness in the elderly, the sit to stand exercise is the one to do. Standing up from a chair, toilet, bed, or car seat is a main indicator of whether you can live independently or not. The sit to stand exercise strengthens all your muscles that you need to stand from a seated position.

Step 1: Stand directly in front of a non-rolling chair.

Step 2: Slowly lean forward and bend your hips as if you’re going to sit on the chair, but stop right before you would normally sit down.

Step 3: Slowly lift yourself back to a standing position.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times.

If you’re unable to stop yourself from sitting down all the way, you can go ahead and sit down and stand up from there. However, the goal is to be able to stop yourself mid-sit, which requires stronger legs and core.

Calf Raises

Having strong calves is vital for having strong legs, since they are the main part of your leg that contributes to walking when they allow you to push off surfaces as you move. Strong calves will also enable you to tackle hills and rough terrain better as well.

Step 1: Stand behind a straight-backed, non-rolling chair, keeping both hands on the chair back for balance.

Step 2: Slowly raise your heels of both feet so you’re standing on your tip-toes, going only as high as is comfortable. Try your best not to move the rest of your body.

Step 3: Slowly lower your heels back to the ground. 

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times.

Side Hip Raises

Your hips are an important component of your legs, but sometimes they can be neglected in exercise. Side hip raises will help you keep your hips strong and flexible.

Step 1: Stand behind a straight-backed, non-rolling chair, keeping both hands on the chair back for balance.

Step 2: Place your feet shoulder-width apart.

Step 3: Keeping your foot at a right angle and your toes pointed forward, slowly lift your right leg to the side to a height that’s comfortable (as high as you can go).

Step 4: Slowly return your right foot to the ground.

Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 10 times per leg.

Lunges

Another great exercise for strengthening your hips, as well as your quadriceps, lunges are among the best exercises for leg weakness in the elderly. Your hips and quadriceps need to stay strong to help you get out of chairs and lift things from off the floor.

Step 1: Stand up with your feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands on your hips.

Step 2: Slowly step forward with your right foot, keeping your upper body still and your left foot planted behind you. 

Step 3: Slowly return your right foot back to its starting position.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times per leg.

Heel Stands

Heel stands will strengthen your ankles to promote balance and the ability to stand for longer periods of time. 

Step 1: Stand behind a straight-backed, non-rolling chair, keeping both hands on the chair back for balance.

Step 2: Slowly rock back onto your heels and lift your toes off the ground.

Step 3: Slowly lower your feet back onto the ground.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times.

Straight Leg Raises

Leg weakness in the elderly can also be the result of a weak core, so it’s important for you to strengthen your abdominal and back muscles as well as your leg muscles. Straight leg raises help do that.

Step 1: On a mat, lay on your back with your lower back touching the floor. Start with your right knee bent and your right foot flat on the mat. Keep your left leg straight and both palms flat on the mat.

Step 2: Slowly raise your left leg, keeping it straight until it’s even with your bent right knee. Hold for 10 seconds.

Step 3: Slowly return your left leg to its original straight position on the mat.

Step 4: Repeat 10 times per leg.

Partial Squats

Squats are among the most dreaded exercises for nearly everyone, but partial squats are not nearly as difficult. Partial squats will increase your hip flexor and quadriceps flexibility, which will help you stand up from a seated position or step over things that get in your way.

Step 1: Stand behind a straight-backed, non-rolling chair, keeping both hands on the chair back for balance. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Slowly bend your knees as low as you are able to go, keeping your upper body straight and still.

Step 3: Slowly raise your body back to the starting position.

Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 10 times.

Step-Ups

As you get older, you’ll need to keep your legs strong enough to climb stairs, which is exactly what these step-up exercises aim to do. They strengthen your glutes and quadriceps to allow you to continue going wherever you want to go, even if there are stairs present. Step-ups are extremely important for preventing leg weakness in the elderly.

Step 1: At the bottom of a staircase, stand up straight and hold onto the railing for balance.

Step 2: Slowly step up onto the first step with your left foot.

Step 3: Follow with your right foot.

Step 4: Slowly step back down with your left foot, then your right.

Step 5: Repeat steps 1-4 10 times, then start over leading with your right foot.

Keep Your Legs Strong for Continued Independence

No matter what precautions you take, you’re likely going to experience some leg weakness as you get older. It’s natural to lose muscle mass as we age, but we can take steps to prevent too much loss, which can lead to surrendering our independence. As long as your legs are strong enough to get up from a seated position and climb stairs when necessary, you can often keep living on your own. Eating the right foods and performing the right exercises can help mitigate leg weakness in the elderly and help you maintain your independence for longer.

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