Fitness for the ages
Hold the hard bodies: Personal trainers can work wonders for lots of older folks, too
When Georgia White goes to her Houston church these days, she sits in a pew. That may not sound like a big deal, but it is to her: Just a few months ago, the 63-year-old was in so much pain from arthritis and four joint replacements that she had to sit in a straight chair instead. But that changed when she started working out with John Ramirez, personal trainer and special-populations coordinator at Memorial Hermann/HBU Wellness Center. She's lifting weights, stretching, walking on the treadmill, and feeling great. "My friends at church say my whole countenance has changed," she says. "I was in so much pain before that I had a permanent frown."
Young hard bodies, move over. In 1987 people 55 and older made up only 9 percent of health club members, but by 2000 that figure had jumped to 23 percent. "That is where all the growth is," says Julie Main, general manager of the Santa Barbara Athletic Club in Santa Barbara, Calif. The benefits of exercise for this crowd are clear: Studies have shown that getting stronger, increasing flexibility, and boosting cardiovascular endurance help stave off many hazards of aging.
These exercise programs often have a slight twist. Strength training--lifting light weights or using resistance bands--is especially important, since it builds lean muscle mass and can prevent bone deterioration. Because weights and machines can be intimidating, a trainer is especially helpful. While there are plenty of 50-somethings running marathons, others need to regain functional fitness--being able to do things like reach for a can on a high shelf or pick up something off the ground. Trainers for the not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be crowd "should have more of an understanding of bringing people along slowly," says Mike Mercurio, founder of Personal Training Associates in Northern Virginia.
Training for long life. Trainers also structure workouts with older adults' medical issues in mind, says Janie Clark, president of the American Senior Fitness Association. Someone with a history of stroke, for example, shouldn't rotate and hold the neck back. The move can compress blood vessels and raise their stroke risk. Bending forward from the waist might exacerbate osteoporosis. Common medications, too, can change a workout regime. Beta blockers--taken to control blood pressure--artificially suppress the heart rate, making it a bad gauge of workout intensity. Other methods, like rating exertion on a scale of 1 to 10, are better. If you're worried about overdoing it, ask if the instructor knows first aid and CPR. Trainers may also need to be experienced in taking vital signs, like blood pressure, during a workout.
So how do you find a qualified trainer? National chains like Bally Total Fitness or Town Sports International may have people who specialize in older clients on staff; you need to ask. Another good bet: wellness centers associated with hospitals or local YMCAs. Good trainers will have taken continuing education courses on senior fitness. A handful of groups, such as ASFA, offer specific certification.
Georgia White, after just three months of three-a-week workouts with Ramirez, is closing in on a new fitness goal: When she goes to church, she wants to be able to kneel to pray.
This story appears in the January 14, 2002 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.