Judy Magid, The Times-Herald, PA:W hen it comes to aging, “use it or lose it” appears to be a no-brainer.
The mantra propels countless motions on treadmills, leg presses and stationary bikes, helping prevent heart disease, reducing stress, jump-starting reflexes, increasing bone density and energizing the brain. And inspiring a little guilt.
The downside is that those who might describe themselves as “extreme middle-agers” have not used “it” for a while and figure “it” is gone.
“Not true,” says Colin Milner, chief executive of the International Council on Active Aging, a Canada-based group that focuses on exercise for folks 50 and older. He acknowledges that most people begin to lose strength at about 35, and more than half of their strength is gone by 70.
“But you can regain strength and become stronger at any age,” he says. “All you have to do is keep moving.”
From personal trainers to Feldenkrais movement classes to tai chi to walking in a straight line at home, there are plenty of ways to practice “active aging,” what Milner defines as being “engaged in life.”
Although diet modification and genetics figure in the mix, exercise has the best potential for keeping people healthy as they grow older, he says.
“There is no magic pill,” Milner says. “But if there is a magic formula, it would be exercise.”
As an exercise therapist, Milner was impressed by a Tufts University study on the benefits of intensive strength training for seniors. “In the Tufts study, people up into their late 90s trained at the same level of intensity as younger people. No one got hurt. They got stronger,” he says.
Milner defines “level of intensity” as doing repetitive lifts at 70 percent to 80 percent of the maximum amount of weight you can lift.
“If you can lift 100 pounds, you train by lifting 70 to 80 pounds in two or three sets of eight to 10 lifts. It does not matter how old you are.”
That goes for balance, too. The National Institutes of Health reports that 1.6 million older American adults wind up in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries, and names falls as the No. 1 cause of debilitating fractures, loss of independence and injury death, seniors can relearn good balance and strengthen bones with exercise.
Getting started is the problem for most.
“Find something you enjoy doing and stick with it,” says Milner. “If you get bored by lifting weights or running, you won’t stay with it long.”
Milner says soccer provides his motivation to move. “I play every week. Like any other (baby) boomer, I take bumps and bruises and go back for more,” he says.
At 50, that may be easier for him to say than it will be at 65.
But, he adds, consider this: “When I was a youngster, there were no 50-year-old soccer players.”
For folks who shun gyms and workout classes, experts suggest four types of exercises that can be practiced at home: strength-training (weight lifting); balance exercises (walking a straight line placing heel to toe); flexibility (slow stretching); and endurance training (walking, swimming, jogging).
— Before starting an exercise program at any age, have a word with your physician.
— Exercise can be in 10-minute shifts.
— Walk up and down stairs for one minute. Rest for one minute, then repeat. Work up to climbing for two minutes, resting for one minute. Repeat.
— No stairs? Walk briskly for seven minutes.
— For strength training, try biceps curls with a 2-pound soup can in each hand. Arms by your sides, palms facing forward, bend each arm at the elbow and bring the weight toward the front of your shoulders. Lower and repeat. Do two sets of eight or 10 repetitions.
— Breathe out as you lift or push a weight and breathe in as you relax.
— Use smooth, steady movements to bring weights into position; avoid jerking or thrusting movements; avoid locking the joints of arms and legs into a strained position.
— Muscle soreness lasting a few days and slight fatigue are normal after exercise. Exhaustion, sore joints and painful muscle pulls are not normal.
— You should do strength exercises for all major muscle groups at least twice a week.
— If you can lift a weight more than 15 times in a row, it is too light for you.
— Drink water even if you are not thirsty.
Sources: AARP The Magazine (November & December 2006, May & June 2007); Newsweek (March 26); Wall Street Journal (Feb. 1);
Journal of the American Medical Association (July 12, 2006); NIH Senior Health (www.nihseniorhealth.gov)
Personal training: Workouts as unique as you are
Walker and Sue Wallace are committed to strength training, but a regular gym doesn’t cut it for them.
“The twentysomethings and the wild music are not the problem. Being forced to watch Fox News while using the treadmill or bike is too much to ask,” Walker Wallace says, joking.
That is why they followed personal trainer Paul Holbrook to AgeWell Center in Salt Lake City, which is geared to people 50 and older. They get an hour’s workout with Holbrook’s full attention and empathy, if not sympathy.
“Paul knows exactly what we need to work on and what we are capable of doing,” Sue Wallace says, doing leg lifts after a knee replacement. Meanwhile, Walker is busy on the “Skiers Edge” machine, looking like a man who has been on a downhill run a time or two.
Holbrook loves it. He became interested in senior exercise when he watched an uncle deteriorate in a nursing home.
“There were no activities to help him maintain strength, let alone build it. I decided to concentrate on helping older adults keep fit,” he says.
Barbara and Norm Tanner also work out at AgeWell Center. At 90, Barbara plays tennis, has myriad volunteer and philanthropic interests and is patiently waiting for her grandchildren to have children. Norm, 92, doesn’t play tennis anymore, but he and his wife train with Holbrook twice a week.
Workouts at AgeWell include treadmills, leg presses and pneumatic machines, which are easier on the joints than weight-stacked machines. Holbrook is at a client’s elbow to avoid falls during freestyle balance exercises. An hour long session runs about $85.
Like the Wallaces, the Tanners appreciate working one-on-one with a personal trainer. “We have been with Paul since he opened,” Barbara Tanner says. “He makes us work, and I know very well I wouldn’t do it on my own.”
And while she knows people can gain strength after losing it, she also is aware how quickly it can be lost.
“I have always worked at it. I used to swim a lot when I was young. I took dancing lessons for years. But if you stop doing all that, it takes longer to get strong. And you can lose it faster.”
(Tai chi: Awakening a mind-body connection
Tai chi is described as moving meditation by Ellie Ienatsch, who teaches classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.
Her classroom for the Osher class is the dance room of the Jewish Community Center in Salt Lake City. With soothing music in the background, students follow Ienatsch’s lead with slow, graceful, deliberate movements combining balance, flexibility, aerobic and toning exercises.
Health and exercise mavens tout the non-impact tai chi as an especially good fit for people over 50, helping them improve balance, enhance blood circulation and ease pain caused by arthritis.
Based on an ancient Chinese martial art, today’s tai chi, or tai chi ch’uan, is practiced by some enthusiasts for its spiritual nature, while others engage in tai chi solely for health benefits. Many practice tai chi as a “soft fist” martial art, translated as “shadow boxing.”
Ienatsch practices tai chi on more than one level.
“I was not successful at transcendental meditation,” she says, speaking of the technique defined as seeking serenity through regular meditation centered on repetition of a mantra.
“I wanted to move, to hike in the mountains,” she continues. “The beauty is relaxing. When you are moving, you breathe deeply because you have to. The slow circular moves needed to go up a trail become a rhythm.”
Her classes often consist of beginners mainly interested in the physical rewards of tai chi. She begins with awakening exercises such as joint rotations and neck turns.
Class members stand, gathering the chi or qi, fundamental life energy, from the earth and sky, then “stretch wings toward the sky with the crane” before Ienatsch guides them through a series of tai chi movements that make up a form. A form can take up to 20 minutes to complete.
“Tai chi is more than a choreographed set of movements,” Ienatsch says. “It is about moving. For hundreds of years, Chinese doctors prescribed physical exercises to cure physical ailments.
“You cannot get young again, but you must keep moving, no matter how infirm you are. Just imagining a movement can be almost as beneficial as doing it.”