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Exercise and Aging

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--by Shannon Entin, with reporting from Joan Price

A demographic transformation is taking place in America. People are staying younger longer. For the first time in history, the United States has more senior citizens than teenagers. And by the year 2025, our senior population will double. According to Mark Goldstein, North American Training Director for Age Wave Communications Corp., "The fitness industry, not health care, will be taking on the responsibility of keeping the aging population healthy and vital."

When today's seniors were growing up, people didn't engage in exercise as we know it today. They didn't have to. Life was much more vigorous 50 to 60 years ago. There was also much less scientific data available on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Now that technology has taken away much of our day-to-day rigor, aging baby boomers may lack the knowledge needed to embark on a fitness program, or they may be unaware of the benefits a fitness program can bring to their quality of life. As fitness professionals, our challenge is to motivate seniors to exercise when they don't have the experience.

Providing information is one of the best ways to motivate. According to Dr. James Rimmer, Director of the Exercise Gerontology Clinic, our aim is to "increase the health span, not to increase the life span." Fitness professionals must change the public's definition of health -- which most would say is the absence of disease. We should explain that "health" is also being more energetic, more alert, more flexible, less susceptible to injury, and better able to enjoy leisure activities such as gardening and playing with the grandchildren.

"Being fit is one of the most potent protectors of health," says Dr. Miriam Nelson, researcher at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. "Much of what we associate with aging is actually the cumulation of a lifetime of inactivity and poor nutrition," she adds.

Research indicates that aerobic exercise does not support muscle strength or mass as we age. Progressive strength training is the key to improved gait, balance, strength and bone density. Older adults can also reduce their chances of developing osteo and rheumatoid arthritis through strength training.

But what about safety? "Inactivity is more dangerous than activity," says Nelson. Strength training improves function in the elderly, allowing them to pick up an item from the floor or put a book on a high shelf with greater ease. And as they grow stronger, their fear of falling subsides. With 60% of emergency room visits related to falling, seniors can benefit greatly from the improved balance and confidence that strength training provides. Adds Nelson, "Frailty is not a contraindication for high intensity strength training."

Here are a few tips on working with mature exercisers, from Mark Goldstein's "Experience of Aging" workshop. Mature consumers:

  • Value quality and convenience over cost.
  • Appreciate generationally appropriate communication.
  • Like to be acknowledged for their life experience.
  • Like to feel membership with a community.
  • Want consistency between what you promise and what they get.
  • Seek safety, honest facts and information.
  • Like interaction and are relationship-driven.

Older adults aren't afraid of dying, they're afraid of losing their independence. Says Dr. Karl Knopf, author and coordinator of Foothill College's Adaptive Physical Education and Older Adult program, "Everything that gets worse with age gets better with exercise. The fountain of youth is in your health club."

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