Creating Effective Personal Fitness Programs for Seniors

If you’re a trainer or therapist working with older adults, you know  that getting older doesn’t have to mean slowing down and succumbing to poor health and a sedentary lifestyle.

The benefits of exercise make a compelling case for engaging in regular exercise at any age, but as we age, it’s essential to maintaining physical and cognitive health and maintaining independence as long as possible.

And yet, one of the most important, and sometimes most difficult, tasks are helping seniors realize the enormous benefits of staying active and engaged in regular exercise.

Here are 5 Best Practices for helping seniors get active – and stay active – through regular exercise that includes strength training.

#1. Help them discover their big WHY.

Dawn Mans, the Wellness Connection Coordinator for Three Pillars Senior Living in Wisconsin, shared that helping the seniors in her community connect to a deeply motivating reason to come into the gym every week resulted in a 79% utilization rate of members in their wellness program.

“I realized years ago that if our residents and community members don’t have a meaningful connection to WHY they are taking on an exercise program, they are much more likely to give up before achieving any kind of meaningful results.” – Dawn Mans

The importance of connecting to a deeply powerful reason to commit to a regular exercise program shouldn’t surprise us. Creating healthy habits is hard, and for older adults who aren’t used to engaging in regular exercise, connecting to their big WHY is especially important.

One way to help clients discover their big WHY is to share with them the ways that exercise can support better overall health and then talk with them about how that benefit might affect their daily life. For example….

  • Combating a slowing metabolism and helping to maintain a healthy body weight so that you are able to take your grandkids to their favorite amusement park all summer and comfortably ride the rides with them.
  • Building strength and stamina so that you can continue to engage in your favorite hobby.
  • Fighting osteoporosis to prevent loss of bone mass so that you aren’t at such a high risk of falling and having to move into assisted living.
  • Helping to relieve arthritis so that you aren’t living with so much pain every day.
  • Improving balance and coordination so that you can keep hiking with your best friends.
  • Reducing anxiety and worry and improving your mood so that you can enjoy your daily life more.
  • Increasing flexibility so that you can continue gardening.
  • Reducing the impact of illnesses or injuries so that you can go back to living independently.
  • Improving sleep so that you stop feeling tired and sluggish, and wake up every day with energy.
  • Keeping the brain active so that you can prevent memory loss and even dementia

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#2. Insist on Strength Training At Least Twice a Week.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate endurance activity per week. This can include cardio, as well as weights or bodyweight exercises to condition your muscles and improve flexibility or balance.

But, strength training is especially important for active aging. As we age, all of us lose some of the functionality we enjoyed in our younger years. After the age of 60, we naturally lose about 3% muscle mass every year.  Muscles become shorter and less elastic, joints weaken, and our range of motion narrows.

We know that age-related muscle loss can be minimized by resistance training, as can the effects of bone-related disorders, such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. In addition, resistance training can prevent falls and reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, and obesity.

For seniors who are brand new to strength training, starting them on machines with zero starting load is ideal. In the beginning, creating the habit of strength training is most important, so create a program that is easy to follow, works with their schedule, and includes some form of accountability. As they progress, the great feeling of being stronger and healthier will fuel their motivation.

Another way to get seniors started with strength training is to begin with bodyweight exercises such as:

  • Squats
  • Lunges
  • Push-ups (against the wall, on your knees, or on your toes)
  • Dips
  • Shoulder presses
  • Step-ups
  • Bicycle crunches

These exercises can improve everyday life because they target the body’s largest muscle groups through functional movements improving the ability to perform daily tasks, such as climbing stairs, carrying groceries, and playing with your grandkids.

If your client will only commit to very short strength training workouts, prioritize two exercises: squats and push-ups.

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#3. Include flexibility and balance training to help prevent injury.

Flexibility. Building flexibility is important in its own right but also supports strength training, increasing progress, and making workouts more effective. Include exercises that focus on full-body, multidirectional movements rather than isolating a certain muscle group.

Balance. According to the National Council on Aging, every 11 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall, and every 19 minutes, an older adult dies from a fall. In 2013, the total cost of fall injuries was $34 billion and is expected to rise to $67.7 billion by 2020.

Falls are a big deal. They are also largely preventable with a combination of strength training, cognitive training, and balance exercises.

One of the most simple, yet effective balance exercises to incorporate into clients’ fitness programs is the single-leg balance reach. It exercises the joints and addresses potential muscle imbalances.

  • Bring one knee up, raising your foot off the ground to the height of your adjacent leg’s ankle
  • Slightly bend the knee of your supporting leg
  • Slowly extend the raised leg, reaching outward with your foot
  • Bring your raised leg back into the original poses
  • Repeat for several reps, and then switch legs

#4. Be mindful of joints.

The positive and regenerative properties of strength training cannot be overstated. However, the key for older adults is to be smart about how they train, remaining especially mindful of whether an exercise is putting too much strain on joints.

For older adults, it’s especially important to prioritize movements that follow a full range of motion, which teaches your muscles to control your body while moving.

HUR’s pneumatic (air-resistance) strength training equipment follows the natural movement of the muscle and is easy on joints and muscles. It is safe, easy to use, and effective at both low and high movement speeds.

The lack of inertia makes the machines ideally suitable for people undergoing rehabilitation, as well as for those who are training for strength maintenance and strength-building purposes.

#5. Build in enough warmup and recovery time.

For older adults, warmups and cooldowns should be taken seriously. The older we get, the longer it takes to heal and recover. A strenuous workout that might have taken 24 hours to fully recover from a decade ago might now take twice that long. It’s extremely important to encourage clients to include rest days in their week, to never engage in strength training on back-to-back days, and to take sufficient breaks in between strength training sets and individual exercises.

Most importantly, help clients understand how to listen to their bodies. If they are feeling sore from a workout, encourage them to engage only in light physical activity, such as walking, and wait until the soreness is mostly gone before resuming their strength training routine.

This is especially true if the client has never done resistance training before. Keep routines short and sweet to start, aiming for 10 to 15 minutes, and allowing plenty of time to adapt and recover in between workouts.

Encourage clients to engage in a wide range of activities.

Outside the gym, there is an enormous benefit to engaging in a wide range of physical activities that are both enjoyable and physical. As seniors continue to work with you, they will begin to experience everyday life with a renewed sense of vigor. Encourage them to take advantage of their increased sense of health and energy by adding activities that boost their quality of life.

Meditative exercises such as yoga and tai chi can be a source of social engagement in a group or a peaceful way to calm the mind when performed inside the privacy of one’s own home. Gardening, playing with grandkids, going on hikes, walking with a friend, heading to the local roller skating rink… there is a never-ending list of activities that can increase quality of life and promote physical health.

As a fitness trainer or therapist, you want to help your clients achieve their fitness goals. But, it’s also important to encourage fitness as a lifestyle that they’ll stick with and find enjoyable at any age.

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