• Sara B.

Working with Seniors in Fitness

What is a senior? Is it someone over 50? What about someone over 70, or even over 90? Senior age is defined as someone usually over 65 who becomes eligible for social security benefits, medical benefits and pensions. Age is just a number. If you are over 65 and are eligible for the additional benefits available to you at that age, great! If you are 65, consider yourself the new 55 and your age is just a number. And if that is the case, 80 is the new 70, 60 is the new 50, 50 is the new 40, and 40 is the new 30. Great! Let’s go have a party!


Unfortunately, age is just a number, but our bodies tell a different story. As we age, our body changes and develops differently. The body does not recover from injuries as quickly, balance changes, the ability to build muscle diminishes, and cognitive functions can decline too. Additionally, as the population of baby boomers reaches over 65, more of this population are taking more and more medications. As a personal trainer, I can offer a unique perspective for this population to improve health through physical fitness. Any kind of movement is better than no movement, and movement across the board can increase the body’s response to aging.


Increase Neuroplasticity


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt to new challenges. Everything from playing sudoku and crossword puzzles to walking and telling stories helps to improve the brain’s neuroplasticity. ACE Fitness Journal (January 2019) published a study that demonstrates there is some evidence that challenging the brain while challenging the physical body increases the amount of white and grey matter in the brain. This is the part of the brain that keeps you sharp.


Physical activity increases blood flow to all parts of the body, including the brain. The blood flow helps nutrients travel to the brain and removes waste products out of the brain. Exercise is good for the heart and the physical body, but it is also good for our brains. The right kind of exercise can and should be combined with cognitive games to reduce neurodegeneration. Even those with a history of dementia in their genetics can lower their risk of developing the disease with increased healthy lifestyle choices. According to a study at University of Exeter on adults ages 60 and older, those with healthy lifestyles were 32% less likely to develop dementia that those with unhealthy habits (ACE Fitness Journal, November-December 2019).


Furthermore, if you are a middle-aged woman, improving your cardiovascular health now could delay or prevent the development of dementia, according to Helena Hörder, PhD of the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. Of course, more research is still needed on the subjuct, but these are promising results.


Ways to Increase Physical Activity and Brain Power


Can you walk and talk? What about wall sit and tell stories? Combining exercise with cognitive activities increases the brain’s blood flow. This blood ‘bath’ gives birth to new brain cells. By combining a physical activity with cognitive games, you engage in dual tasking, which ultimately helps forgo the “use-it-or-lose-it” scenario of brain power. This combination of activities gives birth to more brain power.


There are several ways to engage in both physical and cognitive activities. One of my personal favorites is doing a wall sit challenge while telling stories. The wall sit challenge involves sitting on the wall with your quads parallel to the floor, holding it for the selected amount of time, up to five or six minutes. While we sit on the wall, we tell stories. The story-telling both distracts the physical body and engages the cognitive body at the same time.


Another way to incorporate the use-it-or-lose-it exercises is to play games. There are several simple ways to turn exercising with a senior population into games. It could be as simple as using different colored tennis balls. Let me expand on this. A simple move like a front raise could become a game using colored tennis balls. Using two different colors, one for left and the other for right, the personal trainer encourages the cognitive development while exercising the body. For example, pink could be left and blue for right. If the trainer says pink, the client raises the left arm.


Another simple game to encourage neuroplasticity growth while moving the body includes a ball, like one you find in large bins at a discount store. The person holding the ball creates a move, like an arm raise or circle around the back, and then passes the ball gently to the next person. The next person then adds on to the first move, and then passes the ball back to the trainer. This pattern continues for several passes to eventually include several moves, something in the neighborhood of six to ten moves. This keeps the body moving and challenges the brains of both the client and trainer.


Any combination of physical exercise and cognitive exercise is what researchers call “effortful learning”, which increases the brain’s neuroplasticity. These brain games are a path to a healthy body and a healthy brain.


Better Physical Conditioning and Quick Wit


Increasing mobility of anyone over age 70 is positive. Increasing brain power along with increased mobility and strength creates a powerhouse in anyone, especially those over 70. Many of my clients over age 70 come to me because of an existing ailment, such as a bad knee or shoulder. Others come to me to increase overall physical conditioning so that they can continue to enjoy retirement and their busy travel calendar. Age is just a number, and improving at any age through physical activity is a proven fact.


I work many clients over age 65 and up. Some have been active all their lives, and others are just getting back into physical activity. During their 20’s and 30’s, they stayed active outdoors by water skiing or hiking and active indoors by dancing and raising children. Some of these clients have expressed their gratitude in their improvements both physically and mentally after training with me for several months. Their balance has increased, they can chase grandchildren, and walking is easier than it has been in years.


I have recently been hired by a family to work with the matriarch of the family who is 96 years young. The matriarch had experienced a tragic fall early in January of this year. I was hired in July to come work with her twice a week. Before I entered the picture, they had done everything right from rehab to physical therapy, to eventually getting 24-hour in-home care for their mother. This is the perfect time for a personal trainer to come in.

I began working with this 96-year-old twice a week to improve balance and strength. We only work for just under 30 minutes at a time, but it is enough to wear her out. Over time, I saw her improve physically and mentally. Her strength improved rapidly, and even better I noticed her cognition improved. At the beginning, she was not very communicative and sometimes combative with the movements we were attempting. As time went one, she was more lucid and carried on wonderful conversations with me. She lifts 2-pound dumbbells and pulls a resistance band for rows. We don’t do squats, rather we do what I call sit-stands. This entails the simple act that most of us take for granted of standing up out of a chair and the returning to sitting position. Combined with the other strength training moves we do while she sits in her chair, I can see and feel her strength improving. She even gives me a fist bump!


The family has also seen the improvements in their matriarch. She gets up more easily and her stamina continues to improve. Her quick wit is returning, and she enjoys having people around. Of course, this can be a double-edged sword. What I mean is as she continues to improve physically and cognitively, she gets braver with her movements unassisted, which can lead to issues for a high fall risk individual. Thank goodness for 24-hour care. Ultimately, the family is thoroughly pleased with her improvements and the work I continue to do with her. She truly is a joy to work with twice a week!


Increase Your Senior Fitness Now


I believe that everyone can find some form of exercise activity to do. From walking to strength training, from yoga to endurance sports and bodybuilding, and chair strength training and stretching, there is something for everyone. Any kind of physical activity increases blood flow to the entire body, including the brain. Working the body at a physical exertion rate of 60 to 75 percent of its maximum capacity improves both physical fitness and brain cognition.


I love seeing the improvements in my clients. Even small improvements physically can mean big improvements in every day life. We focus on strength training, cardiovascular training, and balance in our training sessions. I can see from week to week the way my clients’ movements have improved and the way their strength increases. They tell me about how their balance has improved in their lives.


One client described a recent trip abroad where the roads were cobblestone and cumbersome to walk on. Thankfully, she had been training with me and building up strength and balance. While her traveling companion struggled to keep moving, she triumphed over those cobblestone roads with ease and grace. And when grace failed, she was able to maintain her balance and avoid a fall.


To stay physically healthy, you need a program of aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance in an individualized program. Combining physical activity and cognitive brain training improves overall cognitive functions and delay the development of dementia. I have always said that one hour of exercise adds one hour to your life. Experts say there is no downside to high fitness levels.


“There is no limit in how much exercise is too much,” said Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Wael Jaber, M.D. Dr. Jaber research concludes that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness are directly associated with a longer life, reducing hypertension and staving off dementia.


As an athlete now, I hope to be continuing my fitness journey well into my 80’s and 90’s too. I get such joy from working out and the tremendous feeling I get from a great workout. At 41, I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I truly look forward to seeing what the next 40 plus years will bring. No time is too late to start your exercise journey. If you need help on where to start, look me up on social @chicobfit or @saracourtney25.

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