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Senior Fitness Moments

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##### About the Author

Jeanne Faulkner is a freelance writer and registered nurse in Portland, Ore. Her work appears regularly in Pregnancy and Fit Pregnancy, and she has contributed articles to the Oregonian, Better Homes & Gardens, Shape and other publications.

Nowadays, seniors are a lot more fit than they used to be. Even "Sit and Be Fit" classes aren't as common as they once were.

"Fit seniors are strong, and they work out to stay that way," says Justin Olson, 33, an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer who has taught senior fitness classes at Lloyd Athletic Club in Portland, Ore., for five years. "We don't emphasize the chair anymore. We want them on their feet. They have a lot of fun working out together. They need specific guidelines for balance and cardiac issues, but [they] don't want to be babied or considered disabled. Our classes are harder than they used to be because that's what seniors want, though … chairs are available for support."

The students in Olson's SilverSneakers Yoga Stretch class range in age from 65 to late 80s. Mary (no age given), Tom, 77, and Patty, 65, nailed their Warrior Two and Tree poses, and flowed smoothly through modified Downward Dogs. When Justin exhaled his final "Namaste," every senior chimed in. In this class, the chairs are props, not crutches.

Most seniors know that exercise is good for them, but some may not realize that, no matter what age or health level they start at, exercise will always improve their health. Check out these facts:

  • Six months of resistance training increases bone density in hips
  • People who do moderate to high levels of exercise live nearly four years longer, due to cardiac benefits, than those who don't exercise
  • Men and women experience equal cardiac benefits
  • Moderate exercise improves the health of frail seniors and/or those with diseases
  • Exercise is safe for all age groups
  • Seniors hurt their health far more by not exercising than by exercising
  • Inactive seniors are less healthy and more dependent than those who exercise
  • Exercise helps maintain or partly restore strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance
  • 300,000 American seniors are hospitalized annually with broken hips caused by falls; balance exercises build muscle and help prevent falls

Sit and Be Fit is a non-profit organization that produces chair-based exercise programs for older adults and physically limited individuals. SilverSneakers are "senior approved" exercise programs offered at gyms and fitness facilities around the US. Regardless of what program you choose, senior fitness focuses on the four pillars of exercise recommended by the National Institute on Aging: strength, balance, endurance and flexibility.

1. Strength
Strength training maintains and builds muscle mass and bone density, improves metabolism for healthy body weight and blood sugar, and provides a strong foundation for withstanding falls and injury. Training involves hand weights, resistance equipment, flexible tubing, exercise balls, weight machines and, if necessary, a chair.

What to Watch out For
Have a senior-fitness expert guide your first strength training workouts, demonstrate safe techniques and select appropriate weights. Use proper breathing techniques--exhale with exertion, inhale with relaxation. Practice smooth movements to protect joints and muscles from injury. Do not rapidly increase weights. Alternate weight lifting days with rest days. Mild soreness after a workout is normal, but joint pain or any soreness lasting longer than a few days is not.

2. Balance Balance exercises build leg muscles and help coordinate brain-to-muscle motor neurons. Olson says: "Seniors need to focus on balance because imbalance leads to falls. Falls can take you out of the game. Balance improves quickly with even one minute of practice daily." Yoga is ideal for improving balance.

What to Try at Home Hold onto the back of a sturdy chair with one hand. Slowly lift one foot in front of you.
Gradually move to touching the chair with just one finger, and then eventually to using no hands.

3. Endurance
Endurance exercises increase heart and respiratory rates for extended periods of time. These "aerobic" (walking, jogging, biking, rowing, and swimming) exercises build cardiac muscle and oxygenate tissues. Work toward at least 30 minutes, three to five times per week, of sustained activity.

What to Watch out For
Stretch first, stay hydrated and don't lose your breath. Olson recommends evaluating and varying your perceived level of exertion on a one to 10 scale based on how you feel. "If you're tired and only want an easy level-one workout, that's fine. You always need to be able to talk while exercising. If you can't, your exertion level is too high." If you experience dizziness, nausea or sudden fatigue, sit down and call for help.

4. Flexibility
Flexibility training includes yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi and other programs that combine stretching, breathing and mind-body exercises to improve and maintain flexible joints, muscles and ligaments, relax your mind, and provide a "cool down" segment for every workout.

What to Try at Home
Practice smooth, steady stretches that produce mild pulling sensations but no muscle or joint pain. Try sitting in a chair with your legs extended and heels on the floor. Point your toes toward the ceiling, loop a towel around one foot at a time, and bend at the waist as far as you can without straining. Hold for five to 10 seconds, breathing deeply. Eventually, you may reach your toes without a towel. Don't push it. Increased flexibility comes with practice.

Fitness and health experts agree that the key to independent, active golden years is good health. Consult your physician before starting any program. Check with your health insurance provider, local gym or community center for senior fitness classes that combine good workouts with fun social environments. Even if you've lived a long life and never worked out before, your health will improve when you "get physical."

Reprinted with permission from

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