More than any other age group, one size does not fit all when it comes to creating a training plan for older adults. While we can all give examples of phenomenal athletes who continue to compete into their seventh decade (and beyond), many of us are more concerned with continuing our daily activities and avoiding injury as we age. Whether you have an aging parent, or are interested in developing your own fitness program to meet the needs of a body that is no longer young, here are a few things to consider.
Goals:For many senior citizens, the primary goals for a fitness program are to avoid injury, build and support bone density, maintain muscle mass, and continue daily activities. If your goals are in keeping with these, make sure that the program you follow supports them. To maintain bone density and muscle mass, you will want to include some impact cardiovascular exercise and strength training. When deciding on a strength training program, the best program supports your daily activities. Unless you’re a regular athlete in training for a specific sport, your program should target functional activities, such as avoiding falls and improving balance, getting up and down stairs, carrying groceries, completing household tasks, and having sufficient endurance to avoid exhaustion in the things that you want to do. Function: All fitness programs should include strength, flexibility/mobility, and cardiovascular training. As you develop your program, make sure that your activities support your goals. Your strength and mobility training should mimic activities that you want to support. Lower body exercises might include getting in and out of a chair, potentially reducing the level of support from the chair by progressing to a wall squat or a lunge over time. While these activities will build muscle, they will also support continued independence and health in daily activities. Carrying water filled milk jugs or weighted shopping bags across the room, will improve balance and support your ability to complete these tasks in your daily life. Endurance: A fitness program should include more than just strength training. Regular cardiovascular exercise is important in maintaining heart health and the endurance to complete regular activities. If you want to reduce impact, a recumbent bike, elliptical or upright cycle can be a good option; however, don’t overlook the potential of a simple treadmill. Walking is a functional movement that will also maintain and improve your balance. If you are concerned about falls, start with a slow speed and use the handlebar included on all machines until you become more confident. All Horizon Fitness and Vision treadmills also include a safety device that stops the motion of the treadmill if the user steps off of the equipment. Safety: As falls are a common concern and danger for older adults, learning how to safely get down to and up from the floor is a very important strength and mobility skill to develop. Don’t underestimate the potential of yoga and tai chi to build functional strength. While many communities offer low cost programs directed at seniors, classes directed towards the general public can usually also be modified as you work to gain strength and comfort with the postures. An additional advantage of these activities is their ability to safely challenge balance and stimulate growth in the muscular and nervous system by training movements that cross the body and coordinate movements of multiple joints and muscle groups. With so much to consider in developing an effective program, it’s nice to know that there are resources to help. If you’re wondering where to start, the National Coalition on Aging, offers a resource list of programs directed at reducing the risk of falls and appropriate exercise activities for aging adults. Many communities also offer programming through their local recreational departments and hospitals. A personal trainer who is experienced in assessing and working with the needs of older adults can also be a tremendous resource both in developing a program and providing ongoing support and assistance. Finally, if you’d like to do your own research and learn more about the benefits of different activities and assessments, IDEA Health and Fitness Association offers this excellent article and overview.
ImageAbout the writer: Joli Guenther is a certified personal trainer, yoga instructor and clinical social worker practicing in and around Madison, Wisconsin. Learn more about Joli.