Hippocrates said, “Speaking generally, all parts of the body, which have a function, if used in moderation and exercised in labours to which each is accustomed, become thereby healthy and well-developed, and age slowly; but if unused and left idle, they become liable to disease, defective in growth, and age quickly.” Exercise for the elderly has apparently been around for a long time.
Thirty years ago, I began my fitness career specializing in older adult exercise. Not much was happening back then, nationally. A limited number of scientists and researches were accumulating data supporting the benefits of exercise for older adults but classes around the country were sporadic and difficult to find.
I was hired by a St. Paul, Minnesota, hospital to develop and implement a fitness program for limited mobility seniors (I prefer the term ‘older adults’). Our hospital’s new, innovative wellness department was created solely to offer a multidimensional approach for improving the lives of older adults in the frigid north. The team consisted of a registered dietician, two occupational therapists, a physical therapist, and two fitness specialists. We worked closely with doctors and experts from around the country, initially, to develop and deliver a first of its kind prototype. On the fitness end, we hoped we wouldn’t kill anyone the first day. There’s always trepidation when you’re treading in virgin territory.
This was an outreach venture targeting St. Paul’s senior centers, JCC, and low-income older adult high-rises. The fitness segment was designed to promote mental, physical, and emotional well-being. Since ages ranged from 65-95 years (the average was 75), and the athletic ability levels varied tremendously, the emphasis was on flexibility workouts.
Those wanting more vigorous activity augmented the two or three week 60 minute classes with hiking, swimming, brisk walking, or additional fitness classes. When asked why they exercise, one 78-year-old woman summed it up succinctly: “I am more alert, more limber. I walk with a purpose. I just feel better and alive!”
Alive we kept them and after five years, our participants’ tenacity, determination, and results truly amazed us. One woman, who was with me through the duration, went from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane to walking unassisted. All from chair and standing strength and flexibility moves. Another member claimed he regained his eyesight due to the simple eye movements that were included in each session. His doctor had never mentioned trying something like that. Our successful program was noted nationally, which led to numerous speaking engagements, travel, consulting, and eventually, fitness writing for me.
However, there were a few tense times for my colleague, Didi, and me. Once a jealous ‘boyfriend’ stormed Didi’s class with a gun because his 85-year-old ‘girlfriend,’ a regular exerciser, was spending too much time with her new found feel better passion. He wanted to shoot everyone in class; thus, eliminating the competition. Fortunately, a lethal situation was averted but I don’t remember what happened to the man. I know his girlfriend dumped him.
Probably my most unusual situation was scary in a different sense. One bone-chilling winter morning I was pulling into a parking spot at one of my sites. There was a slight hill behind the car curb directly in front of me. I recognized the elderly man standing on top of the snow-covered hill but wondered why he was in shorts and a T-shirt when the temperature was -10 degrees. His arms were in the air and he was in position for …. well, I had no idea what he planned to do. Before I’d come to a complete stop, he did three somersaults down the hill, jumped up against the front of my car professing how fit he was interspersed with marriage proposals and honeymoon plans on the original “Love Boat.” I didn’t inch the car forward although his continuous amorous behavior needed to end. Anyway, he topped his previous creativity this time.
Kay Sager is a certified fitness and aquatic specialist living at Port of the Islands. She is a personal trainer using land and water fitness and teaches swimming. She also has written articles for Physician and Sports Medicine among other publications. Kay can be reached by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.