Today’s seniors are more active than ever before and expanding their social activities to include physically challenging hobbies. Bridge, bingo and crosswords are not the only pastimes being enjoyed by this generation. In fact, many seasoned adults are continuing to enjoy biking, gardening and yoga well into their golden years. Even more impressive is the fact some are exploring more rigorous and demanding activities such as rock climbing, hiking, Zumba® and even competing in running races such as 5Ks and marathons. Age is truly only a number.
There are various reasons why seniors may be choosing to become more active. One reason may be a health scare. A heart attack, a diabetes diagnosis, or a surgery may motivate a person to make healthy lifestyle changes. The other reason may be that many boomers started a fitness activity in their 60s and 70s, so being active is a lifestyle that they want to continue or return to. “I think many seniors are realizing what can happen if they are not active and the health risks associated with obesity,” explains Christopher Webb, MD, a physician partner specializing in geriatric medicine with Medical Associates of Central Virginia.
Embracing a more aggressive style of fitness can have tremendous benefits. Since many physical activities also tend to be social, they stimulate the brain in different areas. The well-known cliché “If you don’t use, you lose it” holds true for mental sharpness, muscular strength and joint range of motion. “De-conditioning is a term used to describe getting out of shape,” explains Dr. Webb. “The less you do, the less you can do, and the less you want to do. When you lose balance and agility, you are more prone to falls.”
Challenges will come with age. However, those challenges can be faced proactively with a desire to improve the quality of life or prolong life itself. A healthy lifestyle, including both a balanced diet and active habits, will help combat many physical and mental ailments if done consistently. After making some minor changes, many baby boomers will find positive results in just a few weeks.
Where to start
There are numerous activities that work well for people of all ages, including those with more life experience. The key is finding activities that you enjoy and that can be modified to your needs or lifestyle.
If you are transitioning from a sedentary lifestyle to incorporating more activity, walking can be the best form of exercise. Walking elevates your heart rate, increases blood flow and begins toning muscles. “The easiest thing to do for many is walking. A brisk walk 30 minutes a day at least three times per week is a good start,” says Dr. Webb. Walking also improves joint mobility, which in turn helps alleviate joint pain.
Begin by walking to the end of your sidewalk, driveway, or mailbox. As that task becomes easier, gradually increase your distance and/or speed to increase your heart rate to the desired level. Your age and fitness level can help you calculate your target heart rate. Doing something active (even if it seems small) is better than sitting and doing nothing at all.
Target heart rate for aerobic exercise is 50 – 69% of your maximum heart rate.
55 years - 83-140 beats per minute - Max = 165 beats per minute
60 years - 80-136 beats per minute - Max = 160 beats per minute
65 years - 78-132 beats per minute - Max = 155 beats per minute
70 years - 75-128 beats per minute - Max = 150 beats per minute
*Provided by YMCA of Central Virginia.
Fitness-minded seniors who are looking to add variety to their already active lifestyles may find that local fitness clubs, gyms and senior centers offer an array of classes and contests to meet the needs of a diverse population. Differentiation is key. Being involved in various activities will help you avoid boredom and the overuse of certain muscles, tendons and ligaments, possibly causing injuries.
Seniors should look for activities that increase their heart rates, but also include strength-building and flexibility components. Misty Vinson-Spitzer, the communications director for the YMCA of Central Virginia, shares, “The YMCA offers many classes that are perfect for the active senior as well as classes for less active adults.”
- Cross Training Lite – Specifically designed for active seniors
- Muscle & Body Pump – A total body strength class
- Pilates – Mat exercises to elongate the muscles and strengthen the core
- Zumba® – Fun Latin dance class
- Indoor Cycling – A great class that doesn’t impact joints
- Aquatic classes – Low impact and endurance-building
- Gentle Yoga – Yoga postures that utilize a chair as a prop and are good for all ages and abilities
- Chair Aerobics – For the de-conditioned senior
“Swimming is also a great form of exercise,” adds Dr. Webb. Activities that are held in the water have a low impact on the joints while building endurance fairly quickly. Some fitness centers offer underwater treadmills for rehabilitation from injuries or surgeries, making walking or jogging as a more feasible form of exercise for many.
Senior living communities are adding activities to include more physical options as well. Locally, Westminster Canterbury offers personal training and water classes, while Runk & Pratt Senior Living Communities have added yoga to their forest activities calendar and The Summit includes weekly Zumba® classes.
“Seniors that exercise are so thrilled with how much better they feel — it gives me great joy to keep them moving!” says Paula Dahl, Group Fitness Director at YMCA of Central Virginia and Storming of Thunder Ridge Director.
Regardless of age or previous exercise experience, professionals advise consulting your primary care physician prior to beginning any new physical activity. “Listen to your body — you should never be in pain when exercising. If it hurts, stop! Start out slow, and give it time to make exercise a habit,” advise Paula Dahl, the Group Fitness Director of the YMCA of Central Virginia in Lynchburg, and Mary Taylor, the YMCA’s Active Adult Program Director. Advise your class instructor of any health concerns or past injuries when beginning a new class or program. The goal is to provide the best possible results while keeping the risk of injury to a minimum.
Simply having experienced another birthday (or two) doesn’t mean that you should give up setting fitness goals or lose the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. There are numerous activities just waiting for you to experience them.