Senior Center Workout and Fitness

by Chris Rice

Retirement communities can go from a community of healthy, rather well to do early retirees in their fifties or so to low income assisted living centers for the elderly. This means the types of programs needed will vary widely as well. A late fifties individual may be training for a triathlon or a Masters level Olympic lifting contest while an early eighties person may be struggling just to get in and out of the bath and to the store. I'm aiming this article towards program design for a more elderly population unable to do highly strenuous activities.

I worked as a maintenance man in a Senior Center for a few months after retirement. There are many health issues among the elderly but the loss of mobility is one that can often be addressed. A loss of lean muscle tissue along with joint mobility and inflammation issues cause many seniors to have trouble with balance and trouble walking, especially with stairs. Even getting up from a chair or in and out of the bath can be difficult. We fixed a lot of lower cabinet doors where they pulled on them getting back up from the floor. What can be done to help them regain muscle strength and mobility? Being as boredom and entertainment opportunities as so limited in many senior settings, group programs offer a real chance to provide both structured and fun exercise sessions. The issues facing the program are pain during movement, lack of full range of motion in many joints, inability to keep ones balance during movement, and weakness of the muscles which contribute to all the above.

The question arises as to what exercise program is the best? Safety issues are paramount as the last thing you need is to cause a fall due to balance problems or fatigue. Many seniors will need the assistance of a support during exercise for safety. Programs also need to address those seniors with wheelchairs and walkers. As with any group, the varying levels of ability make program design a challenge. Equipment needs should be kept to a minimum so in general, bodyweight movements, along with small dumbbells and/or bands can comprise most of the program. Some options worth looking at are:

  • Tai Chi - this Chinese self defense system is also the national exercise program for millions of Chinese of all ages. It needs no special equipment, provides a self adjusting level of resistance but does require a certain level of balance. One of the strengths of Tai Chi is the balance development that it provides. Many tapes are available as teaching aids which also allow it to be practiced when no instructor is available. The individual movements are also broken out in many tapes and allow a higher level of strength training to be practiced. The system is extremely low impact and joint friendly. It does have a weakness as far as upper body work is somewhat minimal. A "fun" exercise program.
  • Katas or the various practice routines used in the learning of many martial arts can be used effectively for strength and balance development - a lot like Tai Chi - but with different emphasis resulting from the harder and softer practices. These are also "fun" to do but usually require an instructor with special knowledge.
  • Walking programs that involve small groups are excellent if an indoor area is available to allow year round use. Equipment such as treadmills are usually not available for group sessions.
  • Yoga can be difficult for many seniors but stretching exercises can have great value in and of themselves.
  • One aspect of many of these programs is the breathing exercises and techniques associated with them. Deep breathing and chest stretching movements can be invaluable in maintaining good general heath, especially in aging populations. The greatest value seems to come from doing these upon rising in the morning but anytime of day will have great value in opening up lungs clogged with years of inactivity and or smoking. Lung problems are very common in senior populations and breathing exercise may provide more "bang for your buck" than many other things you can do. I highly believe in these and have done them myself for over 40 years.
  • Dance - I once watched two ladies in their eighties dance around the room - I don't know what kind it was but it certainly would be considered a good exercise program. Except for their arguing about who was going to lead, they were having a good time as well. No special equipment necessary except a player of some kind and a commons type room.
  • Weight training can be invaluable but often hard to implement. The huge range of levels of abilities mean a designated room often needs to be available for workouts as well as a budget for equipment etc. This is often the best option for those in wheel chairs who often have stronger and more able upper than lower bodies. Machines are better than free weights in these populations perhaps as safety issues are addressed quite well usually. Wheelchair bound individuals are sometimes unable to use many machines. Dumbbells are versatile, cheap, and variable pieces of equipment in these populations.

These are a few of an unlimited number of exercise choices available. Points that need addressed are first: is it fun to do? Senior populations spend enough time being bored; to be successful, the program must be entertaining. It must also adapt itself to widely different levels of ability easily, something that is hard to do with any single entity program. Programs for groups will probably be more successful but individuals unable or unwilling to participate in a group setting should be available as well. A number of activities done on a rotating schedule would be nice.

Chris Rice began weight training in 1959. He has competed in triathlons, power lifting, strongman and is still active in Olympic weightlifting and grip strength competitions. He qualified for the World Championships in 2004 and still holds the age group Masters Olympic lifting records for the state of Ohio in the 50 to 54 and 55 to 59 year old age brackets. He has rock and mountain climbed for 23 years, having climbed Denali (Alaska), Imse Tse and Lobuje East (Nepal) - all 20,000' peaks. Chris is a retired letter carrier for the US Postal Service and is currently serving as a Village Councilman and as the throws coach for the Crooksville High School Track team.