Training Seniors: The Benefits of Exercise at Any Age

Baldwin Tom climbing the Great Wall of China

Last month my cousin, who is in her 50s, told me that she has been doing resistance training for the past six weeks for her lower body. She has been swimming, biking and walking for years. She said, “Now I know why you have no aches and pains – you are fit and strong!”

My cousin felt the difference strength training could make for her, an active woman who has begun to feel the effects of living more than a half a century even though she has been a regular exerciser most of her adult life.

I’m a Baby Boomer. I’ve always enjoyed exercise. While I’m not a competitive athlete, I love the way I feel while I’m exercising and afterward. The movement in sync with my breathing is powerful. As I’ve aged I continue to exercise, but I’ve changed what I do and how intense I do it. I no longer do nine high impact aerobics classes a week. Instead, I enjoy a different form of intensity when working out:  yoga, Pilates, Barre, core, strength and stretch with plenty of warm up and recovery time built into my routine. When I feel an ache or pain I pause. Sometimes I work through it. Other times I rest to repair. At my age I have to think more about what I’m doing and respect what my body is telling me.

Getting older doesn’t mean you have to lose strength or your ability to function well in daily life. But it does mean that if you’ve never exercised, now is the time to start and if you are exercising, you need to make sure your program is balanced. Walking or gardening is fine. It helps build endurance. However, you need to include exercises for strength which builds muscle, increases your metabolism, helps keep your weight and blood sugar in check; exercises for balance, which helps strengthen legs and core muscles, and exercises for flexibility which gives you freedom of movement.

Why Exercise is Important as We Age

Exercise is not a luxury. It is a necessity over which we have control. I believe it’s as important as drinking enough water, getting enough sleep and controlling stress. The National Institutes of Health report that even moderate exercise and physical activity can improve the health of seniors who are frail or have disease that is associated with aging.  They also report that regular physical activity and exercise can also delay or prevent many diseases and disabilities associated with aging such as diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, colon cancer, heart disease, stroke, minor aches and pains and dementia; and may reduce overall death and hospitalization rates.

Not only do you feel better if you exercise but you also will heal faster. Injuries and wounds take longer to heal as people age. Regular exercise by older adults may speed up the wound-healing process by as much as 25 percent according to Senior Exercise can also improve your thinking and your memory. It stimulates every muscle, organ and joint in your body. It gets fluid moving and parts working.

Improvements from just a little movement can be miraculous in older individuals. My friend’s 94-year-old father could no longer lift his arm high enough to hang his coat on a rack. After a few months with a physical therapist he can now raise his arm almost straight up over his head.

You Just Have to Do It. You Don’t Have to Like It

Our bodies are amazing machines. They know how to move, how to compensate and how to heal. They also are the only ones we have. Not everyone likes exercise. But everyone wants to live well and function optimally until our last breath. My client of more than 10 years, Pat Morgan, now 77, realized the value of exercise as an older person. “I don’t really like to exercise, but I like being able to move freely, travel and lead an active life. I never exercised as a kid, never took part in sports. I never established the habit of physical activity nor associated it with any pleasure.” Pat joined a gym in her early 60s to remedy a frozen shoulder. “I had gym buddies who shamed me into more or less regular exercise. We also walked a couple of miles four or five times a week (with the promise of an expresso afterward).

Pat’s gym buddies faded away and so did her regular exercising. It wasn’t until she developed sciatica and it healed she became determined never to experience that pain again. “I hired a personal trainer to help me analyze what exercise was best for my needs. Now I work out once a week, walk a great deal, stretch, use a foam roller and lift weights. I go to a Rolfer once a month to help counteract my tendency to tense up, particularly in my neck and shoulders.”

Pat is not alone in needing to release built up tension. When training older adults I have found that most are in need of reprogramming the basics after years of bad habits. We work on improving posture, correct walking, lifting, bending and releasing tension. Forward flexion can lead to a host of physical ailments not only in the neck and shoulders but also in the lower back and hips as well. As we age we want to bring our bodies back into balance so we can move with ease.

Improve How You Move and Exercise

When Baldwin Tom became my client more than two years ago at age 72 he already had a life-long habit of physical activity. As a young man he played all sorts of sports. “I’ve always loved the feeling after exercising, even the soreness from it. It tells me something ‘good’ is happening.”

Baldwin’s attitude towards exercise is practical. Does he like exercise? No, he said, because it’s work. But yes, he added, because of the results of the work, especially when shown how to work specific muscle groups. “I know that being in shape will help me rebound from the stresses and strains better. Healthiness provides a good mindset about oneself.”

For Baldwin, staying competitive and having goals keeps exercise a priority. He is currently working toward competing for a position on the U.S. National Dragon Boat team for 2017.

Baldwin’s attitude toward exercising has changed from his younger days of exercising. “Then I wanted to look good, be stronger and compete. It was fun. I just did it with little warm up or cool down. Now exercise is necessary to maintain vitality and resilience. It’s more work than fun, and I need more time to warm up and look for different modalities to get muscles and tissues to be optimally functional.”

Aging is a part of life. It’s up to us how we want to experience it. If we don’t move our bodies regularly, we will become rusty, stiff, creaky and cranky. We need to find variety and regularity in our workouts. We need to listen to our bodies now more than ever. We need to incorporate stretching, body work (massage, acupuncture, chiropractic, Rolfing, etc.) into our routine. The quality of our whole life – mentally, emotionally and physically depends on it.

Pat Morgan holding a baby panda during her tour in China last year.

Pattie Cinelli is a holistic personal trainer and a health/fitness journalist who has been living on the Hill and writing her column for more than 25 years. For more information about Pattie please visit her website: