I often wonder why I gave up going to the gym since the exercise was good for my body movement and helped keep my weight down. I think I convinced myself that I didn’t have the time, and after all, I walk my dog three or four times a day. That should be enough, right?
The answer is that while it is helpful for endurance, it is not enough since I am also aging and need to do other forms of exercise that can build strength and improve my health. In fact, we often read that regular physical activity can improve balance, boost strength, and help maintain physical fitness, with many claiming that it can improve one’s mood and help with managing some health conditions like depression, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
With pen and paper in hand, I asked a number of people in my community of older adults what exercise does for them as they age. The answers should help me get back in the exercise groove. Let’s start with 97½-year-old Felix who goes to the gym on campus every day, six days a week, only missing a couple of days in the 30 years he has lived here. In fact, he even works out in his apartment by doing bending and arm exercises. From a young age, Felix always tried to be active, even when in a European concentration camp, and after coming to the United States and starting his own sawmill company, and especially after having a heart attack some 30 years ago. After moving to this community, his philosophy of keeping his body and mind constantly active and moving has helped him maintain good health and the ability to give piano recitals from memory.
Saying that Felix is an inspiration is an understatement. But he is not the only inspiration; there are others on this campus in their 70s, 80s and 90s who lend credence to the research that says we are never too old to keep active even after health setbacks.
Another man, Jim, a mere 94, says that exercise “bores the hell out of me,” but he feels so much better after his three sessions per week. He and many others also like the camaraderie of the gym atmosphere. Maury, who is 80, also likes meeting some “great people” at the gym, but says, “I don’t like the exercise.” After spending most of his life in a sedentary profession, he knows the three days a week he spends in exercise is good for keeping his blood pressure in check and his weight down. He also acknowledges that it helps his leg mobility.
It was probably his wife Dottie, also 80, who convinced him to go to exercise even before they moved to this community. As an asthmatic young person, Dottie never exercised, but now she is “gung ho” for exercise. She says that it keeps her brain more alert and her body more mobile and stronger. At 86, Kitty also says that exercise keeps her more alert and active.
Dottie and Maury demonstrate how one person in a relationship can motivate the spouse. Another such couple interviewed come to the gym together. Bill, who is 84, was a former Director of Physical Education and natural proponent of “maintaining whole health” by staying active and engaged in exercise no matter the age. Since an accident six years ago left Bill paralyzed from the waist down, he has been even more intent on using exercise to help him regain use of his legs and maintain overall good health. His wife, Edna Mae, also 84, says that the exercise “keeps me going” and “helps my heart.”
Health issues are a strong motivator for exercising. At 88, John uses exercise to keep himself nimble, strengthen his posture, and to keep his Parkinson’s disease from getting any worse.
Another John, who is “not aging” at 76, says he is trying to stay healthy and keep his legs strong after two knee replacements. Having been an athlete much of his life, he knows the importance of maintaining strength and flexibility. With dementia in his family history, Bob (76) sees exercise as a way of preventing the same fate for himself, as research has demonstrated. He also keeps his muscles toned and his weight down while enjoying the camaraderie of others.
Gary (81) worked out in the gym even before he moved to this community and continued after his move until an illness side-lined him for awhile. But he is back in the gym, admittedly not at the level as before, to work on his endurance. This regular exercise “gets me moving” to complete daily activities.
Movement is certainly a big motivator for people who exercise in the gym. Two close friends, Alan (80) and Chaz (84), come to the gym together while their wives go to the pool for aerobic exercise. Alan and Chaz both say they feel better and the movement keeps them limber, even though Chaz admits that it “tires me out!”
A 77-year-old feels “better about myself physically and mentally” while she keeps up “with CNN news daily” on the TV above the treadmill. Faith, at 76, says she never exercised before coming to our community eight years ago, but lauds the workout as making her more energetic and helping her feel better, especially her back. She is a prime example of how it is never too late to start being active. Are we inspired yet?
But what about those who have no gym to go to or who just want to exercise while they age in their own homes. The good news is that the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health has developed an exercise and physical activity program for people ages 50 and older, called Go4Life (go4life.nia.nih.gov).
The program requires no special equipment and aims to build strength, balance, and flexibility. The warm-up exercises will help with building endurance. Perhaps I will start with this program and work my way back to the gym! I must beware, though, of exercising like 40-year-old Garfield who lies on his back to warm up, raises his right leg to the count of one, and continues to lie on his back to cool down!