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The fitness instructor is about to start pushups, but first she has to move her walker out of the way. The exercisers at this suburban apartment complex are all over 75 and their leader, Hildegard Gigl, will turn 99 in June.
“I’m getting older but I’m not getting old,” said Gigl, whose half-hour class includes pushups against a wall and weightlifting with soup cans to “In the Mood” and other Big Band tunes.
Exercise may be the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth, one of the best ways to age happy and well.
“The mantra now is, exercise is a drug” — able, like some medications are, to prevent and treat a host of age-related ailments, said Dr. Andrea Cheville, a Mayo Clinic expert on exercise in the elderly.
Exercise aids weight control, healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, mood and sleep. It lowers the risk for cancer, brittle bones and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most recent studies found that walking farther or faster after age 65 — increasing activity rather than slowing down in older age — helps maintain a good heart rhythm and prevent heart attacks.
Even conditions like back pain and arthritis, which many people cite as reasons they don’t exercise, often can be helped by doing that very thing.
The message is catching on. Adults 50 and older — baby boomers — are the fastest growing segment of membership, said Cindy McDermott of Y-USA, the parent organization for the nation’s YMCA programs, such as the one used at the Milwaukee apartment complex.
Senior programs emphasize moves that help people live independently. Wall pushups maintain strength and dexterity to open doors; raising arms behind the head “to imitate zipping your dress or combing your hair” help those with arthritis groom themselves, McDermott explained.
“What attracts older adults is quality of life. They want to be able to lift their grandchildren,” she said.
Some tips from fitness experts:
Don’t tell an older person who hasn’t been exercising to “just do it,” Cheville warned. The type, frequency and dose need to be appropriate for someone’s age, health and condition.
If someone has pain, see a doctor to rule out tissue damage from knee pain, or a back problem that could be made worse by exercise.
“Find ways to exercise that don’t exacerbate the pain,” Cheville said. Climbing stairs might hurt but cycling or water exercise may not. Physical therapy to strengthen certain muscle groups can help, and can even delay a knee or hip replacement for years, she said.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I DO?
Start light and gradually build up to at least 30 minutes of activity on most days of the week. This could be several 10-minute sessions throughout the day.
Look for opportunities: The Y suggests standing on one foot while brushing your teeth to increase balance, doing squats while washing dishes and stretch breaks while watching TV. Take the stairs instead of an elevator or park farther from your destination and walk.
“Listen to your body when determining an appropriate exercise intensity,” advises the American Council on Exercise.
WHAT KIND OF EXERCISE IS BEST?
Y programs include stretching, flexibility, balance, low-impact aerobics and strength training. For seniors, non-jarring activities such as walking, swimming and cycling are best, says the exercise group. Some favorites: water aerobics, yoga, Pilates, tai chi, and line, square or ballroom dancing.
Group exercise classes like the one Gigl leads in suburban Milwaukee also offer a chance to socialize and make friends.
“What’s a wonder is her memory” to move through all the exercises with no notes, said one participant, Carole Pape, 85. “It’s just enough to move all the parts of your body.”
“It’s mostly fun,” said Gigl, whose name is pronounced “giggle.”
“With a name like mine, it has to be,” she said.