Three years ago, she couldn't do a single push-up and certainly had never heard of a "reverse fly." Today, Solveig McCulloch, 79, can easily do 10 push-ups and rocks her five-pound dumbbell flys.
"I am definitely stronger, and my balance and flexibility are better, too," says McCulloch, who started exercising regularly — twice-a-week strength training, in addition to daily walking — for the first time at age 76.
For her generation, she says, working out was not a thing. That said, the National Council on Aging reports that more than 50 percent of seniors are active at least four times per week.
It's never too late
It's never too late to start working out, says Justin Mullner, a D.C. sports medicine doctor. "You can see dramatic benefits from exercising in older adults," Mullner says. These benefits include prevention of osteoporosis and muscle loss, as well as improved blood pressure and blood-glucose levels.
Government guidelines suggest adults over 65 should get at least two and a half hours of moderate exercise per week (brisk walking, for example) and do muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups twice a week.
Benefits and risks
Exercising can be a double-edged sword for someone 65 or older. Yes, there are benefits, but the risks are also greater than in a younger population, Mullner says. For example, a fall can lead to a hip fracture for someone with osteoporosis. Falls are the most common cause of injury in older Americans.
The risk of cardiovascular disease (such as a heart attack) also increases with age.
First, clear any new routine with a doctor. (This is recommended for all ages.) Then solicit advice from resources such as the National Institute on Aging (go4life.nia.nih.gov), a trainer or even a doctor about what kind of routine is appropriate for you, Mullner says.
"It's so individual. What are the goals? What are the limitations?" he says. "What do you like to do? What will you keep doing?"
A tailored program
That's where someone like Stephen Burgett, a D.C. personal trainer, comes in. Burgett tries to identify goals and design a program that will help clients stay injury-free while working on endurance, strength, balance and flexibility — all important components of fitness.
"The first thing I do is an assessment. I look at their range of motion, their movement patterns, how well they sit and stand," Burgett says. Then he uses that information to design a workout program.
If, for instance, he finds that a client loses his or her balance easily, he might look at strengthening the gluteus, because hip muscles are crucial for balancing. Gluteus muscles can be strengthened with the gluteus bridge (lying on your back on the floor, feet planted close to the hips and lifting the hips) and squats.
Many older adults also have weak back muscles, causing them to hunch forward. Burgett might have them do a seated row (a pull motion) and a squat with a shoulder press to strengthen their upper back. He might also include planks for core strength (helps with posture) and a modified pull-up (helps strengthen the upper back).
"People — especially if their baseline is low — will see increased strength quickly. I would say within a month," Burgett says. However, if you're aiming for body composition changes — looking cut, for example — that takes much longer, he says. It also requires that you make nutritional changes.
Generally speaking, though, older adults are very different from the younger set when it comes to fitness goals, Mullner says.
Young people are often looking to improve athletic performance, such as their running pace, or trying to attain a certain aesthetic (looking good naked, maybe). But for seniors, fitness is often a way to stay independent: strong enough to lift boxes off shelves, walk up and down stairs, carry groceries and do laundry.
"It's about functional fitness," says Mullner, who recommends tai chi and yoga for seniors as a way to improve balance and proprioception (spatial awareness and the ability to move effectively and efficiently), which are key in preventing falls.
"I can lift things like garbage bags and package, and gardening has become much easier," McCulloch says of her newfound fitness. "I can do it without taking breaks. I can dig holes and bend over without any problems."
And although she is not looking to be in a bodybuilding competition anytime soon, she did show her grandkids how a push-up is done, and she has expanded her routine to include power yoga. Just a few years ago, she didn't know what a downward dog or pigeon pose was. Now they're among her favorites.
Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at gabriellaboston.com.
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