an older adult man sits up in bed and reaches his arms over his head.

Getting regular exercise is important as you age. Physical activity can help seniors maintain muscle strength and reduce feelings of depression and stress while improving their mood and sleep quality. Some older adults may spend a significant amount of time in bed or lying down, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do physical activities that can stretch your body and work your muscles. Although people at all mobility levels can stay active, older adults who want to exercise should talk with their doctor to ensure an exercise program is suitable for them. If it’s safe, bed exercises like these are movements you can do while lying down or propping yourself up in bed that can help you maintain physical and mental health.

Upper body bed exercises

These movements target your upper body — think of your neck, shoulders, arms, and hands. These can help stretch your muscles, which can weaken or tense up if they are in the same position for a long time. 

Neck circles

Doing neck circles is a simple yet effective stretch for the neck and shoulders. You can do this best while sitting up in bed. If you don’t have a bed that can move positions, you might consider propping yourself against pillows if it’s difficult to sit safely in your bed.

How to do neck circles: 

  • Sit up comfortably in bed. You can prop yourself up with pillows to help you sit.
  • Tilt your head down, so your nose points toward your lap. 
  • Slowly and gently, lead with your left ear to roll your head toward your left shoulder. 
  • Lift your head so it is in a natural position and you are facing forward and looking straight ahead.
  • Slowly roll your head, leading with your right ear down toward your right shoulder.
  • Complete the circle and roll your head slowly so you look down and your nose points toward your lap.
  • Complete another circle in the other direction.
  • Repeat twice in each direction.
  • If at any point this movement hurts, stop immediately.

Shoulder shrugs 

We all shrug our shoulders each day, but not many people know that this is an exercise for people who spend a great deal of time in bed. The best way to do this exercise is by sitting up in bed. 

How to do shoulder shrugs:

  • Lift your shoulders toward your ears. 
  • Hold for a count of three.
  • Relax them to their normal position. 
  • Repeat five to ten times.

Tip: You can also try shrugging one shoulder at a time. If you try the movement this way, be sure to alternate shoulders, so you do the exercise evenly on each side of your body. 

Wrist stretch

Wrist and finger stretches can help prevent stiffness and pain. It’s important to perform these exercises gently. You should feel a comfortable stretch, not pain.

How to do wrist stretches:

  • Hold your left hand in front of you, facing your palm away.
  • Touch the palm of your right hand perpendicularly to the palm-side of the fingers on your left hand. It will look like you’re forming a “T” with both hands.
  • Gently apply pressure, pushing your right palm into the fingers of your left hand so your left hand bends slightly backward at the wrist. 
  • Hold for a count of three, then release your right hand from your left.
  • Repeat with the other hand, so your left hand stretches your right.
  • If this movement hurts at any point, you should stop.

Arm lifts

People may mistakenly think that doing exercise requires weights. But bodyweight exercises are actually very effective. Think about it: Your arm has weight to it — just by moving your arms, you are activating your arm muscles, and they are carrying the weight of your limb against gravity. Trying these arm lifts while lying down gets the blood flowing in your arms and activates various arm and shoulder muscles.

How to do arm lifts:

  • Lie down comfortably in bed with your arms resting at your sides.
  • Extend one arm up toward the ceiling. 
  • Hold for a count of 5.
  • Slowly lower your arm to back to the bed.
  • Repeat with the other arm.
  • Stop this exercise if you feel pain in your arm, shoulders, or neck.

Tip: You can modify this movement, so you don’t lift your whole arm but still reap positive benefits. Try bending at your elbow instead of your shoulder. You’ll bend your elbow, so the back of your upper arm remains on the bed, your forearm is perpendicular to your upper arm, and your hand points toward the ceiling.

Arm crosses

Arm crosses can stretch your back, which may benefit from a nice stretch if you’re lying down a lot. While this movement is typically performed while sitting up, you can also do this stretch while you’re lying down. Think of this movement as giving yourself a big hug.

How to do arm crosses:

  • Sit up comfortably in bed. 
  • Hold your arms out in front of you, shoulder-width apart, palms facing each other.
  • Cross your arms to bring your left palm to your right shoulder and your right palm to your left shoulder.
  • If it’s comfortable to grasp the back of your shoulders, do this and hold your shoulders for a count of three. 
  • Release your hands and return your arms to their first position. 

Tip: To stretch both sides of your back and arms evenly, repeat this movement with the other arm on top. For example, if your left arm reached your right, do this movement again so your right arm reaches your left.

Lower body bed exercises

If you’re spending time lying down, your legs may be prone to getting stiff. These lower body movements can help get the blood flowing and stretch your legs while working your leg muscles.

Leg lifts

Doing leg lifts a few times a day can keep you from getting pressure sores and help your blood circulation. Leg lifts may also make it easier for you to walk after being in bed for a long time.

How to do leg lifts:

  • Lie down and use your hip joint to lift your leg up toward the ceiling. 
  • Hold the leg there for five seconds or as long as it’s comfortable. 
  • Bring the leg to the bed slowly. 
  • Repeat with the other leg.

Tip: Try bending your knee while your leg is in the air for an added stretch.

Foot circles 

Foot circles work out the muscles in your feet and lower legs, which can be done when you are lying flat on your back or sitting in a bed.

How to do foot circles:

  • Sit or lie down in bed with your legs in a straight line. 
  • Keeping your legs against the bed, point your toes away, so your toes face the wall across from your bed. 
  • Gently flex your feet, so your toes point toward the ceiling. You may feel a slight stretch in your calf muscles. 
  • Alternate between pointing and flexing three times.


Staying active as you age is an important aspect of maintaining your health. These exercises can be effective in helping a stay active while in bed and avoid the physical and emotional effects of inactivity. Be cautious about doing these exercises alone, as having an aid, or caregiver present may be helpful. 

Remember, none of the movements in these exercises should hurt. It’s always best to consult your health care provider before exercising if you’re not sure they are right for you.