Most simple exercises have souped-up variations that make them more challenging and help you milk them for all they’re worth. (Looking to level up your squats? Go for a calf raise at the top of each one. Trying to supercharge your planks? Opt for the “bear” rendition with bent knees.) But when it comes to boosting mobility, you actually don’t have to be working out to follow the same principle. Instead, you can take a movement you’re already doing throughout your day, like getting up from a chair, and turn it into a mobility challenge by making one swap: Do it without the help of your hands or arms in what’s called the sit-to-stand exercise.
Widely considered to be a fundamental element of mobility, the sit-to-stand transition is something that people who walk do, on average, 45 times a day. For those who are able to do the exercise, it’s also a core factor in remaining independent as you age. After all, the same motion is important for things like using a toilet or getting out of bed in the morning.
With this in mind, there’s value in seniors (who don’t have disabilities stopping them from doing so) regularly practicing the sit-to-stand exercise—that is, rising from a chair without using their hands or arms for support—as part of a workout regimen for mobility. But no matter your age, it’s a good habit to get into whenever you need to stand from a seated position, says internal-medicine physician Michael Roizen, MD, author of The Great Age Reboot. That’s true even if doing this motion doesn’t exactly feel like exercise or a challenge to you, or you have no issues standing up hands-free on command.
“Getting out of a chair without using your hands involves a complex set of nerve and muscle actions and requires coordination and balance.” —Michael Roizen, MD, internal-medicine physician
“Getting out of a chair without using your hands involves a complex set of nerve and muscle actions that necessitate strength from your legs, pelvis, abdominal, and back muscles, and requires coordination and balance,” says Dr. Roizen. Crucially, it’s that last bit that’s often overlooked when it comes to how supportive this simple exercise can be for mobility and, in turn, longevity. Even if you aren’t exactly feeling the burn in your core, legs, or back while standing from a seat without your hands, you’re still activating the proprioceptive system required for coordination.
In fact, a study of nearly 700 older, community-dwelling people found that performance on the sit-to-stand exercise was dependent not only on leg strength, but also on things like balance, reaction time, and psychological status. Which is all to say, regularly standing up from a chair hands-free is likely doing more for your body and mobility than briefly firing up your quads.
How to level up the benefits of the sit-to-stand test
While any version of getting up from sitting without using your arms is mobility-supportive—and you can do it from any chair or couch you already happen to be sitting in throughout the day—there are certainly some versions of the sit-to-stand exercise that are more challenging and activating than others.
A literature review of studies on the sit-to-stand test found that, among other positioning factors, the height of the chair a person is seated in plays a significant role in how much momentum they need to generate to successfully get up. Lower chair heights were found to require more momentum generation (something you’ll be keenly familiar with if you’ve ever sunk down into a low couch and then struggled to stand back up).
So, practicing the sit-to-stand exercise from a lower chair, or even from sitting on the floor (which is technically called the “sitting-rising test”) will give you even more bang for your mobility buck. Research has even deemed being able to stand all the way up from the floor without using your arms a measure of longevity in its own right because of the unique combination of muscle strength, coordination, flexibility, and balance that doing so requires. (It’s not a coincidence that many of the longest-living people in the world regularly sit on the floor.)
That said, it’s probably not realistic for you to be sitting on the floor and getting up from there all the time—and according to Dr. Roizen, you certainly don’t have to do so in order to reap the mobility-boosting benefits of the sit-to-stand exercise. Even just making the conscious swap from using your hands every time you stand up from a chair or couch to doing so hands-free is a worthwhile move for your mobility and longevity, he says.