Use it or lose it - it’s a good time to get moving
It’s becoming a cliché, but like all clichés, there’s some truth there: fitness is not only about adding years to your life, it’s about adding life to your years.
If you had a personal best, you’re not going to reproduce it in your twilight years. The best, longest, fastest, heaviest and highest are going to stay right where they are – in the past.
But that doesn’t mean the 55-plus are, or should be, mere onlookers in the world of exercise.
And the fitness industry hasn’t been at all slow to catch on and catch up.
A Google search will bring up page after page of gyms and fitness programs tailored to the over-55s – everything from miracle cures to the elixir of life. Don’t be fooled.
There’s no easy way to get the heart beating slower and the lungs working more efficiently. All involve effort of some sort.
The most popular is walking. It’s free and mostly pleasurable, but with so many of us time-challenged in what should be our resting years, there are all manner of options for getting fit and, more importantly, staying that way.
Most fitness experts seem to agree that 150 minutes of exercise a week is important for seniors who, probably without being aware of it, have been living in deteriorating bodies since their mid-30s.
Brisbane City Council offers a free membership seniors centre. The 50 Plus Centre is open Monday to Friday in the basement of the City Hall in Adelaide Street and offers a huge range of low cost activities that include gentle exercise, ballroom and line dancing, yoga and many other ways to help keep you fit.
You will be asked for proof of age such as a driving licence or pension card. Call the council and ask.
“Gyms can seem daunting to seniors. They’re seen as the domain of the young”
Or Google ‘exercise for seniors Sunshine Coast’ or ‘exercise for seniors Brisbane’ to find a host of options. Most involve a fee, so don’t be shy to ask.
Your Time asked a couple of reputable providers what seniors can do to protect and improve their wellbeing.
Going to the gym, surprisingly perhaps, topped no lists although it wasn’t ruled out either.
Ruth Reinhard of Brisbane-based Health Thru Fitness is a comparative latecomer to the fitness industry who has definite views about the need to stay active in later years. Made redundant at age 57 from the Queensland public service, she contemplated her future and decided to take control – something she strongly advocates for the seniors who now attend her individual sessions and group classes.
“Any movement is better than no movement,” she says. “Over 55s, especially over 60s, find their lives revolve around the house, the kids, perhaps the grandkids – who tend to keep them at least slightly active.”
But they probably need to do more.
“It starts with wellbeing,” says Ms Reinhard. “Of course you can take the dog for walks but the dog needs to stop for piddle, a sniff around.
“Really, you need a goal. I, for example, run classes for those with a goal.”
Robert Hubert of Fitness Australia in Brisbane, himself in the 55+ category, agrees: “But I explain that they usually can’t achieve that goal without a degree of hard physical activity.”
He suggests that people seeking enhanced wellbeing should start with something easy. “Walking is a good way to start and build confidence from there. Or ride a bike” he says. “Gyms can seem daunting to seniors. They’re seen as the domain of the young. Of course that needn’t deter them but they probably need to have that basic confidence that exercise outside the gym can give them.”
But, as Ruth Reinhard points out, there’s also an emotional side to exercise, particularly among the over 55s.
She finds her own attendees (she’s now learning to teach – if that’s the word – Pilates) return not only for exercise but for companionship.
“Music plays a vital role for us. It enhances the mood, and while I realise that not everybody is a morning person, morning is a good time to exercise mind and body. I see them making new friends, which is also part of their wellbeing journey,” she says. “It’s healthy.”
And a vital part of her mission, as she sees it, is to keep older people out of nursing homes, although she agrees that many are extremely well run and are becoming progressive in terms of exercise.
“Exercise keeps people out of institutions and helps them take control of their own lives,” she says. “Exercise for seniors should be as important as sleeping.”
And as our bodies age, we can prepare through fitness and health for any shocks the years may have in store for us.
Ruth Reinhard’s clients include doctors, who she says, have, like others, decided they need to be prepared for any health shocks their bodies may throw at them in their later years. But again, goals are important.
“We need something to measure ourselves against,” she says. “We need to set targets for ourselves. What we can do is give options but there needs to be that will.”
Robert Hubert also wants us to challenge ourselves.
“The quicker the walk, the better,” he says. “Put on a pedometer and, as confidence builds, take on some hills, walk on the beach in heavier sand.”
It’s all about the joints, he says, which can and frequently do, show signs of wear and tear as we age.
“Be careful of joint degradation,” he says. “Cartilage damage, back pain, knees, ribs. If there is injury there it can bring on weight gain through inactivity.
“Movement is good for older people. The more the better. It really is a case of use it or lose it”.
So when should seniors head to the gym?
“They’ll likely need a gym for weight bearing exercise that will maintain bone and muscle mass, once they’ve built the confidence, they need to take that next step.”
For both, though, it’s about making a difference in people’s lives.
“Our generation didn’t have gyms,” says Ms Reinhard. “Many of us come from single income families and we were closer to the food sources than we are today. But we can even now put fitness up there on our list of vital things to do.
“If people can give us their goals – and it’s not always weight – we can give them the tools they need to achieve them.”
And seniors are an emerging, if still under-serviced, market for the fitness industry, explains Robert Hubert.
“Unfortunately, the fitness industry tends to be run by younger people who tend to focus on their own group.”
He sees no evidence – yet – of a specialist sector emerging. But people such as himself and Ruth Reinhard are testament to a growing demand that will surely find a supply.
Five myths about exercise and ageing
Myth 1: There’s no point to exercising. I’m going to get old anyway.
Fact: Exercise and strength training helps you look and feel younger and stay active longer. Regular physical activity lowers your risk for a variety of conditions, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, high blood pressure, and obesity. Not only can exercise help stem the decline in strength and vitality that comes with age, it even improve it. And the mood benefits of exercise can be just as great at 70 or 80 as they were at 20 or 30.
Myth 2: Older people shouldn’t exercise. They should save their strength and rest.
Fact: Research shows that a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy for adults over 50. Inactivity often causes older adults to lose the ability to do things on their own and can lead to more hospitalisations, doctor visits, and use of medicines for illnesses.
Myth 3: Exercise puts me at risk of falling down.
Fact: Regular exercise, by building strength and stamina, prevents loss of bone mass and improves balance, actually reducing your risk of falling.
Myth 4: It’s too late. I’m already too old to start exercising.
Fact: You’re never too old to start exercising and improve your health! In fact, adults who take up exercise later in life often show greater physical and mental improvements than their younger counterparts. If you’ve never exercised before, or it’s been a while, you won’t be encumbered by the same sports injuries that many regular exercisers experience in later life. In other words, there aren’t as many miles on your clock so you’ll quickly start reaping the rewards. Just begin with gentle activities and build up from there.
Myth 5: I’m disabled. I can’t exercise sitting down.
Fact: Chair-bound people face special challenges but can lift light weights, stretch and do chair aerobics, chair yoga, and chair Tai Chi to increase range of motion, improve muscle tone and flexibility, and promote cardiovascular health. Many swimming pools offer access to wheelchair users and there are adaptive exercise programs for wheelchair sports such as basketball.