More seniors enjoy exercise and its benefits, even if new to the gym.
It is never too late to get in shape and feel great, say Finnish researchers who examined the link between exercise and quality of life as one ages. Longitudinal research conducted over a 16 year time period at the Finnish Centre for Interdisciplinary Gerontology at the University of Jyväskylä found that people who exercised regularly since middle age required less medical and institutionalized care in their last year of life than people who only exercised occasionally or not at all.
Previous studies have demonstrated that physical activity decreases disability. However, there is no previous research on whether physical activity from midlife onward is associated with hospital and institutional care, the researchers say.
Kathi Casey, known as The Healthy Boomer Body Expert, says that she is pleased that the study supports what she teaches in her practice, and that she has noticed more people fifty-somethings exercising than ever before, and many enjoy working out with their partners.
Casey says that many Boomers strive to enjoy better health than their parents did, and want to avoid hip and knee replacements, Alzheimer's, stroke, and heart disease, adding that muscles that aren’t used stiffen, and inactivity puts people at risk for a host of physical ailments.
“Regular aerobic activity helps to keep our lungs, muscles, bones and heart working properly. Practices like Tai Chi, Yoga, and Pilates not only keep us moving, flexible and strong, but also help us to keep our balance,” Casey explains. “As we age, our balance seems to fade—unless we do something to keep it working. Falls are one of the major causes of physical injury for older people.”
Casey believes that the study results can be very encouraging for those who think they are too old to get moving. “This study gives hope to those middle-agers who have been so busy with careers and raising families that fitness just didn’t happen,” she says. “It’s never too late. The important thing is to just start—start walking, or dancing or go back to tennis or any game that you loved. Now we have scientific evidence proving that it will help you age better. I know those muscles are a little stiff, but they’ll just get worse if you don’t begin to use them.”
For Boomers, the time is more ideal to get active than they may realize. “There are so many opportunities to work out now that the kids are grown, and many of us are retired or semi-retired,” Casey explains. “Spend some time remembering the activities that you loved to do as a kid and start doing them again. Dance to the oldies, golf without a cart, walk the dog, ride your bike or play frisbee in the park—think ‘young again’ and you will feel young again.”
Atlanta-based fitness expert and owner of Café Physique, Amber O'Neal, calls the Finnish study results “uplifting,” and says that she has also noticed a trend of increasingly active Boomers.
“Middle age is when many adults first start developing a sense of mortality, an appreciation for physical health, and a respect for the fragility of life,” O’Neal explains. “It is encouraging to know that acting on these realizations at an older age still has an impact on quality of life.”
As a result, O’Neal says she has noticed that more middle-aged and senior adults are seeking formal exercise programs to get in shape. “As they sign up, it is true nearly across the board that they are seeking benefits far beyond the purely cosmetic,” she says. “I hear goals like reducing injury, strengthening bones, keeping up with other family members, not being a burden on their children, having more energy, [and so on].”
The clientele is very knowledgeable, O’Neal notes. “It’s almost as if they knew about this study before it even came out! They’re definitely taking their exercise programs seriously."
Yoga instructor and fitness and wellness coach Karen B. Cohen, says the Finnish study results are interesting, but a well-established fact to those who follow exercise research.
“Exercise is a virtual fountain of youth that improves quality of life and increases longevity. Back in 1993 the American Council on Exercise (ACE) published the results of Dr. Kenneth Cooper's research from the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas, that clearly shows that people can make significant gains in strength and vitality by properly exercising no matter at what age they begin,” she explains, adding that Cooper advised getting involved in fitness at any age as it provides current and future benefits.
“More recently, and reflecting full acceptance of the essential nature of senior fitness, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported in 2003 that when women 65 and older increased their physical activity levels, they cut their risk of dying prematurely from ANY disease in HALF compared to those who were sedentary,” Cohen adds. “And in 2005, ACE published research from Professor Joel Stager at Indiana University at Bloomington, stating that swimming two to three miles, three to five times per week can postpone the aging process for decades.”
Cohen says that most of her clients are seniors. “The majority of clients at our holistic training studio are middle-aged or older—currently up to age 82,” she says. “We are passionate about giving our client-partners the expertise, personal attention, and comfortable environment that allows them to develop not only fitness, but confidence and the tools to create a lifestyle of sustainable health and wellness.”
Older clients require and deserve specific considerations, Cohen says. “There are many ‘walking wounded’ out there that will not be served in a traditional health club. We guide them in a way that is comfortable for them,” she says. “We teach them the real-life benefits like preventing injuries and low back pain, especially when they do things they love like gardening or picking up their grandchildren.”
Like O’Neal observes, these clients have concerns beyond cosmetic. “They learn the value of exercise in reducing stress incontinence and improving bowel functioning—not glamorous but real concerns for older folks,” Cohen explains. “They value their independence and dignity at every age!”
Sara Schumacher, wellness coordinator at Kendal at Lexington, a Continuing Care Retirement Community in Lexington, VA says that when older adults require physical therapy, those who have been active enjoy greater benefits than those who have been sedentary.
“There is a noticeable difference in physical therapy drive and recovery time among active versus sedentary older adults,” Schumacher says. “Residents who regularly participate in physical fitness activities are less likely to have the accidental set backs such as a falls. Their bodies are also better prepared for those accidents when they do happen.”
How popular is the exercise trend among Boomers and Matures? “Senior and Boomer fitness is well immersed in the more affluent and the more progressive (old hippies and cultural creatives) parts of our culture and is seeping slowly into the mainstream,” Cohen explains. “Upscale retirement communities are not only building fabulous fitness centers into the foundation of what they offer, but some communities are being designed completely focused on fitness, wellness, and outdoor recreation—a complete lifestyle approach.”
Tips for Boomers who are ready to get in shape? Start slowly, Casey advises. “When you’re just starting out, go slowly,” she says. “Take small steps and reward your successes along the way, no matter how small.”
Stretching is especially important, Casey adds, especially one’s hamstring and piriformis muscles. “This stretch becomes even more necessary as we age due to stiff muscles and is the key to prevention of sciatica,” she explains. “Unfortunately, sciatic and low back pain are rampant these days. According to the American Chiropractic Association, 80 percent of us will have trouble with our backs at some point in our lives. Most of the time, tight or swollen muscles are pressing on the sciatic nerve causing our pain and the above stretch is a very simple solution for keeping those muscles flexible and healthy.”
Casey also advises incorporating breathing exercises and movement into everyday activities. “I like a good old Irish jig while I’m brushing my teeth,” Casey says.
O’Neal encourages senior adults who want to exercise regularly to make the commitment. “Knowing what you should want and actually wanting it are vastly different,” she says. “You already know that you should strive for a healthy lifestyle that includes a strong balance of mind and body wellness. However, you must actually commit to taking the necessary steps towards achieving your goals lest they be made in vain.”
Once making the commitment, set realistic goals, O’Neal advises. No one will stick to a rigid plan calling for specific calorie counts for long. Making an extremely strict program a long-term lifestyle habit, she warns, can be “a recipe for failure.”
Making it a team effort can be fun and socially rewarding, she adds. “If you want to live a truly healthy lifestyle, it helps to hang out with folks that are trying to do the same thing,” O’Neal maintains. “This does not mean that you need to get rid of the pals you have now. Instead, just expand your horizons and include new and different individuals into your circle. Try to meet up with others who share your interest in healthy living so that you don't have to travel the journey alone.”
People should realize how much power they have over their own health, O’Neal adds. “According to recent research, there are five major drivers of our overall health, but a whopping 40 percent of our total health is affected by our own personal behavior,” she explains. “What you choose to eat, how active you choose to be and whether you choose to smoke or use drugs—all of these are completely in your control. Make good decisions and choose wisely.”
While staying committed to a fitness program, O’Neal says, people should never fall victim to guilt. “After a splurge you should not punish yourself by avoiding your favorite food or skipping meals,” she says. “This perceived ‘solution’ is more likely to fuel your craving and lead to more overeating. Learn from your experiences, and make better choices the next time around.”
Like Casey, O’Neal says beginners should take it slow. “Those who start working out when they’re older really experience the same challenges as anyone else, but they are just more magnified,” she explains. “They should start out very slow and build up their program over time as they get stronger, gain more balance and become accustomed to the extra work.”
One fitness factor that she and her fellow experts say seniors should focus on is balance. “Older adults should be sure to incorporate balance exercises into their programs because falling is one of the most common injuries among the older population,” O’Neal says. “The wonderful thing is that balance is a skill that can be practiced and improved.”
Cohen says there are numerous books and free resources for seniors who would like advice on starting an exercise program. “The National Institute on Aging has put out a most excellent guidebook on this subject—maybe overall best I've ever seen for entry level,” she says. “It has charts to keep track of progress, great photos, and the offer of a special certificate of completion from the NIA.”
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