Four-square fitness: Strength, endurance, balance and flexibility are all important

By Joe Stumpe | February 28, 2023

When it comes to exercise, my super-fit mother-in-law follows a simple philosophy: Some is better than none, and more is better than some.

I think that’s one reason why she survived a life-threatening medical scare in her mid ‘80s and is back to walking several miles a day (some other good habits, such as eating right and following her doctors’ advice, no doubt helped).

The “more” in her approach to physical activity refers not just to volume or duration but to variety of exercise, a strategy that’s been promoted for several years by the National Institute on Aging. By engaging in exercises that specifically target four different attributes — endurance, strength, balance and flexibility — we can achieve better overall fitness than by focusing on, say, just endurance.

This is not to say that you can’t continue to enjoy one type of activity as your primary form of exercise. If you love walking, bicycling, golfing or gardening, there’s no need to cut back; that enjoyment is the best guarantee you’ll stay active. Instead, the idea is to add in at least a bit of what your favorite particular activity lacks. 

Walking and biking, for instance, both require endurance and balance but little in the way of upper body strength or flexibility. However, after you’ve finished a walk or bike ride is the perfect time to spend a few minutes on strength and flexibility exercises since your body is already warmed up. Even swimming — considered the “perfect” exercise by some — lacks balance and flexibility components that a few minutes outside the pool can address.

Joining a gym, taking part in group exercise or engaging a personal trainer can jump-start your fitness quest, but there’s plenty you can do in the privacy of your own home. Here are some exercises and tips from the NIA for finding “four-square” fitness:


By their nature, endurance exercises require the most time. They are arguably the most important of our four groups since they improve our cardiovascular health and ability to enjoy life while also helping prevent diseases such as diabetes and cancer.

Goal: Build up to at least 150 minutes of activity per week that elevates your heart rate and makes you breathe moderately hard. It’s not necessary to get all your daily activity at one time. In fact, breaking it up may help you avoid sitting for long periods at a time, which is not good for the health. Follow the usual safety precautions such as drinking enough water and stopping if you feel unwell.

Good endurance exercises:

• Brisk walking or jogging

• Yard work (mowing, raking)

• Dancing

• Swimming

• Biking

• Climbing stairs or hills

• Playing pickleball, tennis or basketball


Sufficient strength makes everyday activities like climbing stairs and carrying grocery bags easier and can help prevent falls, both indispensable for independent living.

Goal: Exercise all your major muscle groups at least two times a week (but not two days in a row). Increase the weight or number of repetitions performed if they become too easy, and don’t forget to breathe throughout.

Good strength exercises (do two sets of each):

Overhead lift: Press light weights, water bottles or soup cans over your head 10-15 times, starting with your arms at a 90-degree angle and pausing briefly at the top of each repetition before lowering. 

Curl: Curl light weights, water bottles or soup cans 10-15 times, starting with your arms by your side, palms facing out, and pausing briefly when the weights reach your shoulders.

Wall Push-ups: Stand about an arm’s length from a wall, lean your upper body towards the wall and push yourself back to your original position with your arms. Repeat 10-15 times.

Hand squeeze: Squeeze a tennis ball 3-5 seconds for 10 times with each hand.

Chair dips: Sitting in a sturdy chair with arms, use your triceps and leg muscles to lift yourself out of the chair, then slowly lower yourself back onto the chair. Repeat 10-15 times.


Improving your balance can help prevent falls, a frequent cause of serious injuries to older adults.

Goal: 4-5 times weekly.

Good balance exercises:

One-foot stand: Stand on one foot for 10 seconds while holding onto a chair with one or two hands, your fingertips or no hands. Repeat 10-15 times with each foot.

Balance steps: While holding your arms straight out to the side, slowly walk forward while lifting your knees waist high for 20 steps.

Heel-to-toe steps: Place the heel of one foot directly in front of the toe of your other foot and repeat for 20 steps, using a wall for balance if needed.

Tai Chi, an ancient form of self-defense developed in China that involves shifting the body slowly and gently. Online and in-person classes are widely available.


The ability to move freely makes it easier to tie your shoes, swivel your head while driving and perform many other routine tasks.

Goal: 4-5 times weekly (preferably after other form of exercise).

Good stretching exercises:

Back stretch: Sit in a chair equipped with arms, turning until one hand rests on your opposite knee and the other hand on the chair’s arm; hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times both sides.

Inner thigh stretch: Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet on the floor; let one leg one drop as far to the side as comfortable, hold for 10-30 seconds and repeat 3-5 times with each leg.

Ankle stretch: Sit in a chair with your legs stretched in front of you and your feet resting on their heels. Point the toes of one foot away until you feel slight tension, hold for 10 seconds, then point toes straight up for 10 seconds. Repeat with both feet, singly and together, 3-5 times.

Hamstring stretch: Lie on your back with one leg bent and one leg straight. Raise straight leg as high as possible, bending as necessary, and grab behind the calf with both hands. Hold 10-30 seconds, repeating with each leg 3-5 times.

For videos of exercises and more information, visit