Are Gyms Going Gray?
Gym intimidation is real. The mental struggle to exercise at the gym often includes:
- “I had never been physically active.”
- “I probably do all the exercises wrong, and people would judge me.”
- “Paying for the gym doesn’t mean going to the gym. It’s hard to stay motivated. I’ll probably waste my money.”
- “I don’t need a gym. I will exercise at home (beginning tomorrow).”
- “I am too old to start.”
And you know these are excuses. Because across the country, 10.5 million adults age 55 and older have already joined a gym. The demographic has also become the fastest-growing segment of the health club population according to a survey conducted by The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
“It is never too late to start exercising,” said Dr. Kris Berg, an exercise physiologist who worked at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) for 45 years. “People are very responsive to exercise programs even into their 80s and 90s.”
Dr. Berg recently retired from his professorship of Health Physical Education and Recreation at UNO. But for much of his career, he was devoted to working with chronic disease patients and developing special exercise programs to tackle their problems. Todd Wintersteen from Right at Home met with him for a chat on aging and exercise in May.
Need Based Exercises
Contrary to the belief that older adults are frail and weight lifting is not safe for them, many seniors are ditching elliptical and treadmill for strength training at the gym. Dr. Berg explained that weight lifting not only builds strength, but also makes bones stronger.
Bicep curls for example engage the muscle that is attached to the shoulder blade (scapular) and the lower arm. When a lifter flexes, the bicep brachii muscle pulls on the bones. Over time, the bone mineral density will become greater and more resistant to fracture.
But Dr. Berg cautioned that people should work initially with exercise professionals to receive good fundamental instructions. “You may begin sensibly and start rather easily,” said Dr. Berg. “Without some stringent guidance, you are more likely to give up because of muscle soreness or injury.”
“Typically, an exercise professional would assess your needs,” Dr. Berg explained. “This includes looking at your balance -- which is critical to reducing the incidence of falls -- your overall strength, the strength of your core muscle, and your ability to stand up and to carry an object. You may also be asked to go up a short flight of stairs. Your progress will depend on what you are able to do. People with the lowest level of function capacity sometimes have the most room for progress.”
Dr. Berg recommended new gym goers take measurements 8 to 12 weeks after initiating a program to evaluate their progress. Indications of improvement can be an increase in walking speed or time, or the ability to walk up a flight of stairs without the use of the rail (or less dependence on the rail).
“I was never an athlete, but…”
While you can start working out on your own, making exercise a habit can be difficult. “Incidents of pain and problems can outweigh the benefits of exercise,” said Dr. Berg. “So I think it’s worth it to enlist a good professional to help. Learn the fundamentals, and have someone watch you do things so you can learn the proper movements. You don’t have to meet with a trainer every single session; you can meet with the trainer for assessments periodically.”
Taking months to train the muscle and the bone also offer mental benefits. “Every time we get up and move for more than 10 minutes, the nerve transmitters including endorphin and serotonin are secreted, creating an arousal effect on many different regions in the brain,” Dr. Berg remarked. “That gives people more spirit, and mood improves. So almost everyone would feel more energetic too.”
He continued on the psychological effects of exercises, “In the first week, people may claim to be ‘never an athlete, never very good at this,’ then 8 to 12 weeks later, they can do things that were once thought to be beyond their capacity. They get a sense of empowerment and confidence.”
Community Resources That Help You Kickstart Exercising
If you are considering joining a gym, you may find age-friendly facilities in your local community using the online locator of AARP. Organizations and programs that welcome and accommodate the needs of older adults can be searched by state, city and ZIP codes on the platform.
SilverSneakers Fitness is another nationwide program. Targeting adults aged 65 or above, the membership comes as part of insurance benefits. It allows you to access gyms and fitness classes at no extra costs. You may review your group retiree or Medicare health plan to see if you are eligible for it.