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Why more Howard County seniors are focused on staying in shape

Holly Thomas is deceptively strong.

Standing five feet tall and not even close to 100 pounds, the Columbia resident won’t share her exact age, but she’s over 75 and able to keep up with her twenty-something grandsons on family vacations. That means she’s biking with them on the roads of Japan or exploring Sri Lanka and Thailand on foot.

“They’re proud of me,” says the former trial attorney, who’s still a member of the D.C. bar association.

She attributes her physical prowess to working out with her trainer at least twice a week. It isn’t always easy, though.

“Is it hard to go two or three times a week? Yes. Sometimes you’d rather be in bed,” Thomas admits. “But it’s exercise or atrophy. I’m too busy for atrophy.”

Thomas isn’t alone. As seniors live longer, they are increasing their focus on fitness to preserve a better quality of life, experts and seniors say. A number are seeking personal trainers who are sensitive to the needs of this demographic, such as mobility, balance, joint strength and muscle retention.

Thomas’ trainer, Denise Jenkins, 60, says she started seeing an increase in the number of seniors in the gym 10 years ago. Now, 70 percent of her clients are seniors.

“Now that there are a lot more baby boomers, there are a lot more of us in the gym looking for us to get that help — to get healthy,” says the Columbia Association trainer. “I’ve had them say that they didn’t want to work with a 20-year-old. They preferred someone in their age range. They just need that motivation and guidance.”

In addition to combating nagging injuries, Jenkins says, her older clients focus on muscle and bone strength while setting lifestyle goals, like climbing Machu Picchu. For Thomas, it was being able to pull herself in and out of SUVs while roaming the African terrain during a safari.

“Usually, if they are consistently in here — two to three times a week — within a month, they are feeling a difference. [Losing] five pounds can make a major difference in aches and pains,” says Jenkins, who receives clients through doctor referrals and through CA’s Supreme Sports Club.

In addition to lowering one’s risk of a number of health conditions, regular exercise can help seniors remain independent longer and decreases the likelihood that they’ll end up in the hospital or in a nursing home, says Dr. Brock Beamer, an internist who specializes in geriatrics at the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

“Very often it’s a strong motivator for people to start exercising,” he says.

“Clearly doing aerobic exercise has been long known to have great benefit to your longevity, to your risk of cardiovascular disease, to your risk for stroke. The more active you are, the better the benefit.”

Mobility, posture and strength are the biggest fitness goals for seniors, trainers say.

“Working on their mobility is really important,” says Elizabeth Harris, a 51-year-old trainer who primarily works at the Columbia Gym in Clarksville. Harris says she prefers “functional training” where movement patterns of the exercise mimic everyday life. “That can affect their day-to-day activities.”

Many of Harris’ mobility workouts include exercises that target the shoulders, hips and knees, which are typical problem areas for seniors. Clients generally start sessions with a warm-up on the treadmill and move on to exercises with equipment that ranges from free weights to workout balls.

“I like to challenge them with the weights. They are usually stronger than they think they are,” Harris says. “That helps them feel stronger. And they’ll feel less frail — not scared to open that jar.”

For Jenkins, addressing preexisting injuries is paramount.

“At 50 or 60 everyone has an injury,” she explains. “I work around that. I see how much weight bearing they can do. If we can strengthen those areas that need repair, that will help them with mobility. When we start moving and the pain goes away they are surprised.”

Balance work is also important for the older population, according to experts.

“There have been a number of big studies that if you don’t incorporate balance training, you do not get a significant benefit to decrease falls,” Beamer says. “Many, many people who are working with older adults, the increased recognition has been that we need to specifically address balance.”

But often, the greatest challenge lies in making seniors feel comfortable in a gym setting. Some have never gone to an organized gym in their lives, according to the trainers.

“We can go to areas that are just a women’s gym. I can work one-on-one with them,” Harris says. “They feel more secure. They’re not around all that banging [of weights].”

The relationship between the trainer and the client can help, too.

Robert Siskind, 70, suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder, and recently battled pancreatic cancer. He says his trainer, Deanna Nosel, has tailored his training to his ability level.

“She’s very sensitive about what I can and cannot do,” he says. “It’s been very helpful for Parkinson’s. Being physically active, you can push it [the progression of the disease] back.”

Siskind’s wife, Barbara, has also seen the difference that working with the right trainer has had on her husband.

“She makes you think you can do it,” says Barbara Siskind, who also works with Nosel. “She pushes you each time.”

She says the support has made it easier to make the gym a habit.

“When I first went to the gym, I would do the same thing every time. Moving into some of the ‘big boy’ machines was a challenge. l I felt a little apprehensive. But she got me through that section,” she says. “The going is a challenge. You’d rather have that second cup of coffee or read the newspaper. With her, I don’t feel so lazy. When you have an appointment with someone, you go. You can’t back out.”

Jenkins welcomes the growing number of seniors getting physically fit.

“I want to be that trainer that will help them get to that level they want: drop the weight and getting stronger,” she says.

She always wants her clients — like Thomas — to enjoy life.

“When they tell me they are going to Europe, I want to focus on the stability of their ankles,” Jenkins explains. “They have cobblestones [in Europe]. I want their body to be able to react to the changes in the terrain.

“But my main priority is to help people enjoy things in life.”

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