Exercise Is Good for the Elderly

You’re never too old to pick up a barbell: Common problems and solutions for seniors who want to exercise.


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The SilverSneakers program promotes good mental and physical health.

Photo courtesy SilverSneakers/Tivity Health

Jackie Leventhal works out regularly, sometimes taking as many as three classes a day at the Club at the Claremont in Oakland. At 70-something, she spins, she dances, she practices yoga. And then she walks 5 miles to do her errands and meet friends.

“I like to move around,” Leventhal said. “It’s very important to me. It just makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something for myself and my body.”

Leventhal doesn’t need hard science to know how she good she feels moving her arms and legs, bouncing around to the bhangra beat behind her. But she has science behind her. Study after study show that exercise helps promote good health, both mental and physical, for people of any age. And for seniors, exercising has especially important social value, too, according to a recent report in The BMJ.

But there are special precautions and hurdles seniors may face when looking to join a gym and work out. Some of those include the trepidation of putting on Spandex in front of a younger crowd to being able to afford a club on a fixed income. Those barriers have solutions and so are surmountable.

Discomfort and pain. Many older people are not active because of back pain, sore knees, heart conditions, and lung disorders, according to an article by Kathy Stewart for Aegis Living, an assisted living and memory care provider with several Bay Area locations.

How to overcome: Seniors should talk with their doctors about what their bodies can and cannot tolerate, and then seek out classes that are age-appropriate, she said. There are plenty out there. Water aerobics is a good option to lessen joint impact, along with yoga, rowing, and cycling. In addition, many gyms and clubs tailor classes for the elderly. Chair-yoga and “Cane-do!” (working out with a cane) are featured options at the North Oakland Senior Center on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. And “Gentle Movement” and “Exercise 4 Life” classes are offered at Kaiser Permanente locations in Oakland, Alameda, Richmond, and Pinole. In addition, the AARP has teamed up with the International Council on Active Aging to increase awareness of—and access to—age-friendly wellness and fitness centers and services.

Fixed income. Gym, health club memberships, and personal training can be expensive for a senior on a fixed income. Seniors may not feel that they have the means to exercise because of lack of extra funds.

How to overcome: Walking is a great, free option to stay active. And performing household chores, like mowing the lawn, vacuuming, or scrubbing the floors, can contribute to overall fitness and health, experts say. Also, certain insurance plans cover gym membership, or at least subsidize it. Gym memberships or fitness programs may be part of the extra coverage offered by Medicare Advantage Plans or other Medicare health plans. SilverSneakers by Tivity Health partners with 60 Medicare Advantage and other health plans to provide free gym membership at 14,000 locations across the country including the 24 Hour Fitness and Curves gyms in Oakland. In addition, programs run by the city of Oakland have inexpensive workout program. For example, it’s $5 a class at the North Oakland Senior Center, where classes range from tai chi to line dancing. And it’s just $12 for the entire year for programs offered at the East Oakland Senior Center on Edes Avenue.

Isolation. Most people, not only aging adults, are more successful at an exercise program if they work out with a partner, and that can be harder if a loved one is ill or recently died, the experts at Aegis Living point out. Plus, getting to a gym may be difficult if older adults are no longer driving and walking seems unsafe.

How to overcome: Find a local senior citizen organization that offers group activity and fitness classes so that finding a carpool buddy isn’t a burdensome task. And seek out clubs that are close to public transportation. The East Oakland Senior Center, for example, is on AC Transit bus line 45 if seniors don’t have a ride to the gym. According to Sims Corbett, a senior learning designer at Tivity Health, a recent annual SilverSneakers survey showed that 58 percent of members in the program “have made new and valuable friendships.”

Aside from these hurdles, some older adults never exercised when they were younger, so starting something new, at their age, can be quite scary. Sharleen, a SilverSneakers program user who asked that her last name not be used, said that she thought gyms were only for “young buffs.” It wasn’t until she finally joined one that she learned that her fear wasn’t true.

Leventhal, the regular gym user, had this piece of advice as well: “People are not looking at you,” she said. “People really aren’t that critical. And even if they are, everybody is dealing with something.”

This report was originally published in our sister publication, the East Bay Monthly.

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