Guest Column: Being fit for life is doable, it just takes some time - The Explorer: Opinion

Guest Column: Being fit for life is doable, it just takes some time

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James C. Sandefer

Posted: Wednesday, June 5, 2013 4:00 am

For many seniors and retirees, fitness activities are a regular part of their weekly routine. For others, fitness training is essential and equates to living well as opposed to merely existing. 

According to the American Council on Aging, some form of fitness activity performed at least three times per week and 30 minutes per session can enhance the body’s ability to maintain itself in a “healthy state.” When I first read this statement, it seemed too vague to have any valid, health-related significance. As I studied it, I came to realize that the message was simple, just getting off your butt and doing something is better than just sitting on your butt thinking about it. 

As a senior, I know from experience that well-conditioned body parts heal much faster and in accordance with medical recovery tables for injuries/surgeries than out-of-shape ones. I’ve also seen miraculous recuperations by well conditioned people who were challenged by devastating illnesses. Their doctors credit their fitness-oriented lifestyles for much of their restorative success.

At this point, I need to ask for your indulgence. My initial intention was to provide you with a look at the diverse range of fitness activities available to seniors around town and some explanation of the benefit of several of these options as provided by the staff at several fitness facilities. As I was learning about the complexities and challenges of working with seniors in a fitness environment, it became apparent that I’d uncovered a goldmine, the staff. You’re going to learn about the programs available, but most importantly, some insight about the people making them possible. 

Every fitness facility I contacted offered a confirmation that at least one of their on duty personnel are first aid and CPR trained. Interestingly, fitness instructors generally hold the premise that we are made to move and exercise can make it easier. It encourages muscles groups to work together.

The trainers typically meet three types of fitness center visitors:

The first type is nutritionally stable and has been reasonably active for life. These people need a brief fitness evaluation and some occasional direction. Overall, they are self-sufficient.

The next group has little or no fitness training experience, negligent with their conditioning and nutrition, may have a medical referral, have some physical deterioration due to surgeries, and are likely to be overweight. These people offer a significant challenge, and those with respiratory illnesses are the most hindered. 

The last category is comprised of athletes, both then and now. They tend to be in a fitness rut by only performing their specialty, such as running. Their sport oftentimes fails to offer any form of resistance training and they are losing bone strength and muscle mass. 

Instructors often suggest cross training as the key to overall fitness by offering a blend of aerobic (cardio), resistance (strength), and flexibility. This gives an appropriate balance to the fitness program and strengthens muscles and joints in the process.

For those athletic types who think it’s OK to slack off from time to time, I found some interesting information from a recent study of elite athletes and couch potatoes. Muscle loss begins in 72 hours from the time of last physical activity, regardless of your level of fitness. Additionally, within one year without any physical activity, there’s no difference in the physical condition of the spud/couch potato and the athlete. So it seems the notion of use it or lose it is alive and well, and walking, yoga, resistance exercises, and everything in between is better for us than sitting around every day. 

As seniors age, balance is a critical issue and is responsible for many in-home accidents that result in broken bones. Yoga emphasizes balance practice during many of the poses and this reduces the odds of falling. It works the joints and muscles using one’s own body weight and this improves bone density, which is a fundamental factor in limiting senior activities. Flexibility and core alignment are encouraged during poses, and breathing maximized. All forms of Yoga offer a mind-body connection, and can serve as an excellent companion for other fitness activities. 

In many fitness centers, circuit training is the foremost activity. The circuit training room is ideally suited for those who wish to use their time expeditiously and get on to other retirement activities during the day. A plus for this workout option is being able to choose the type of equipment desired for use from a variety of resistance machines to aerobic treadmills, stair steppers, and recumbent cycles. 

The overwhelming message from trainers is for everyone considering fitness training is to get a medical screening and clearance before jumping into any conditioning program. Conditioning doesn’t happen overnight, so expect to see peaks and valleys in your progress. Sustained training will give you the best results and reduce the likelihood of an injury.    

Understand that diet and exercise are partners in any fitness endeavor. Enhance your results by incorporating both, and work with a nutritionist if necessary.

Here’s the only shortfall that I identified in the system. There aren’t male and female exercise machines. If there were, ones with the gigantic weight stacks made of daunting, steel-looking Styrofoam would be for men. We seem to have this testosterone dilemma. Initially, we don’t care about the results if we’re pushing what appear to be tons of weight. Women don’t seem to be concerned about how much weight they move, but rather how it feels. There may be a lesson here—hello guys.

Finally, train for overall fitness, to include core alignment, strength, aerobic, and balance.

Being fit for life is an option that everyone can live with.

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