Super agers save the best to last: Exercise for older people

Dr Kenneth Cooper, the man who literally added the “s” to the word aerobic, is adamant: “We don’t stop exercising because we grow old, we grow old because we stop exercising.”

He should know. During his years of service with the US Air Force, Dr Cooper had a stint as Director of the Aerospace Medical Laboratory in San Antonio, Texas, where he created a sequence of fitness tests that to this day serve as the standard for military organisations and athletic teams.

Yet, like many of us, Dr Cooper had a wake up call. At the age of 29 and carrying forty extra pounds, he was attempting to slalom water-ski when a pounding chest made him believe he was having a stroke. The ER doctor delivered the diagnosis: he wasn’t having a heart attack; he was just out of shape.

This led him to two major events: a 1968 bestseller Aerobics, introducing his “revolutionary fitness concept” to the world, and in 1989 the Cooper Institute breakthrough study proving “moderate physical activity can decrease risks of death from all causes by 58 percent”.

These days, the 82-year-old granddaddy of aerobics still jogs and continues to spread the word about preventive health and fitness with his “Get Cooperized” campaign (www.cooperaerobics.com/Health-Tips.aspx) – which is for young and old alike.

Dr CooperFather and son, Drs Kenneth and Tyler Cooper jogging at Cooper Aerobics Center.
Photo: Cooper Aerobics

For me, encouraging people to be physically active throughout their lives is a passion. In group fitness classes at FitHub, for example, we welcome everyone regardless of age or ability, and my job as instructor is to provide options within each exercise to meet each person’s capacity. The feedback from our over-65 clientele is unanimous: they feel much stronger, more confident and healthy as a result of regular exercise.

Before you retaliate by saying that at your age exercise and a healthy future don’t matter, take note that most 65-year-olds now have a life expectancy of up to 88, while a 25-year-old can expect to live until 91. That’s a lot of years and it’s up to you to control within your means the quality of your physical condition and well-being.

And let’s not forget the “super agers". Haven't heard about this age group north of 80 with “brains and memories that seem decades younger”? A study in 2012 headed by Emily Rogalski, a neuroscientist at North-western University’s cognitive neurology and Alzheimer’s disease centre in Chicago, found a group of elderly men and women in their 80s and 90s had memories as sharp as those 20 to 30 years younger. Rogalski put this down to the cortex, the part of the brain responsible for attention and memory, which amongst her super agers was “much thicker than the cortex of most elderly people”. She added, “The super agers also seemed to have more energy and a more positive outlook on life.”

In fact, for seniors there seems to be more and more encouraging research. According to a Live Science poll in August of this year, people become happier after the age of 50 but the magical number is 85 – the age when people say they are happiest and “more satisfied with themselves than when they were at a bright and sprightly 18 years of age”.

I understand that introducing a new physical activity can be daunting at any age, but even more after we hit 65, when the fear of falling, illness or feeling that you’re “too old” can all play a part in avoiding exercise. Here’s an inspiring story about a very dear client in her seventies. When we first met, her goal was to get up from the beach towel without the aid of her grandchildren. She was an absolute beginner and very fearful of starting something new at her age. The transformation was amazing and she is now a strong, independent, active woman always looking for her next challenge. In her words: “Having reached the age of 75, I thought personal training would be too hard but this is not the case. The sessions are fun and are adapted to my ability and needs. It has given me back the physical confidence I had lost. My sense of balance has improved hugely.”

So where do you begin? Well, it’s essential to start slow and consult with your doctor before starting any physical activity. Seek professional fitness advice from a personal trainer or attend a group fitness class where the instructors offer clear instructions for alignment and modifications in exercises where necessary. Even if standing is not an option, exercises can be performed in a chair.

To stay enthused, stick with activities you enjoy, whether it’s walking the dog or taking a class with friends followed by lunch. You’re more likely to make it a regular occurrence if it’s fun, and also if you vary the activity. It’s essential to include cardiovascular exercise for your heart, stretching/yoga for flexibility and strength training for muscle mass and bone density.

If this isn’t enough to spur you on, here are some other advantages your body will enjoy: boost in energy, happier moods, better blood pressure and digestive function, an improved circulation of blood and lymph around the body, good sleep quality, boost to the immune system with a better chance to manage symptoms of illness or pain.

The best way I can sum it all up is in the words of Jim Rohn: “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”

Body changes after the age of 40
  • A 3%-5% loss of muscle mass per decade
  • Flexibility decreases
  • Balance diminishes to the point where falling suddenly becomes a major concern
  • Bone density loss can lead to osteoporosis
Exercise can reverse the symptoms of ageing
  • Gain muscle mass at any age
  • Adding a stretching/yoga class to your weekly schedule will improve your range of motion in the joints and improve your balance
  • Strength training can improve your bone density, preventing the risk of fractures
Benefits of physical activity include
  • Improves your memory and overall sense of well being
  • Increases muscle mass, which means you will burn more calories (fantastic with the holidays around the corner)
FacebookTwitterStumbleuponLinkedin