I've written previously about how gyms and personal trainers are increasingly targeting the older crowd, teaching them how to exercise safely in light of whatever medical issues they might have. I found one trainer with multiple credentials in training this population, including a senior personal training credential from the American Senior Fitness Association and the American College of Sports Medicine's cancer exercise specialist certification. At the age of 65, Jerry Hart has spent 20 years in the fitness industry and is still training clients part time in Bethesda, Md. We talked about what he does differently with older folks.
What are your clients' goals?
In the club where I work now, the goals are all over the map. Typically people want to lose a little bit of weight—you're un-American if you don't! But for my older clientele, a lot of it comes down to maintaining independence. They don't want to fall. They don't want to be fearful about falling. They want to be able to do the things they had to stop doing. It's really a kick in the anatomy when you can take a client like that and enable them to get their confidence back. At this point I don't want to work with someone who is trying to lose those last 10 pounds; I want to work with someone who has a real need. And I can identify with them—I want to be active, too.
How is the actual training different?
With 30-year-olds, after you do a fitness assessment, you can push them pretty much as hard as you want to, depending on their goals and fitness base. With a 65- or 70-year-old who's been sedentary for maybe 40 years, you have to feel your way more carefully. When they say, "Jerry, you're not pushing me hard enough," then I know I can move from low to a moderate level of exercise.
What kind of an assessment do you do before you plan a program for someone older?
I ask them what they've been doing, what limitations they have, if any, what they do for a living if they're still working. That has a great bearing on how hard you might train at any one time. If someone still works outside carrying mail, we may not work on cardio but would focus on strength and balance. And I ask them what medications they take. I look up the drugs and see what side effects I may have to take into account.
What do you do for balance and to cut the risk of falling?
We'll analyze where people are with some basic field tests. Can the person stand on one leg? Can he or she squat? It's a very simple assessment. Then we'll take it from there and build until people are comfortable. I might first just make a target on the floor and say, stand right in the center of that and do a single-leg balance. We might progress to a pad that's an inch off the ground, then, in three or four workouts, be bouncing on the BOSU ball [a piece of equipment that looks like a beach ball cut in half]. That's like play, and that's the goal. We hear the first part of "working out" and it becomes a turnoff for older folks. They've worked hard all their lives!
Let's say you have a new client, in his 60s, who doesn't have any major medical issues but has been sedentary for years. Where do you start?
I'll still start with balance and stability to see if it needs work, or if it's just another element of the workout. Then, most likely I'll start with cardiorespiratory work. It may be as little as 10 minutes on a treadmill, cross-training machine, or recumbent bike. I'll introduce him to two or three different machines to see what's most comfortable. If he does really, really well, we might chat for a bit and then come back to another piece of equipment and do five or 10 more minutes. Then we'll try out three to seven strength machines, a few for upper body and two or three for the lower body. Using dumbbells and free weights might be a bit much to start for someone who has been sedentary. Then we'll assess flexibility, especially the shoulder and hip girdles, and all the muscles that attach there. We'll do a nice, easy stretching session of five to 10 stretches.
How are older adults usually introduced to the gym and to training?
A lot of times a daughter or niece or cousin will test me out and then bring in their older relative. They come in and we get to work. I'm very close to them in age, which makes me more approachable. Besides my baldness, the rest of my hair is white. And it's obvious that I didn't just graduate from school—though I did just get a master's degree!
For more on preventing falls, read this story I did earlier this year on balance-building exercises. I also wrote about starting a workout habit in middle age and beyond. And my colleague Deborah Kotz has written about the importance of exercise for senior citizens.