Monday, February 9, 2009

Fitness for Seniors

In the waning days of 2008, I appeared on Boston's Talk Radio Station, WRKO, with host Mariellen Burns to discuss getting healthy in the year ahead. I shared tips on all the standard New Year's stuff like setting manageable goals and navigating toward success in a desired area of your life, whether it be fitness or flossing daily. I reassured listeners that resolutions are indeed advisable and effective, underscoring that this site,, is the product of last year's resolution. Then, I got harangued by "Bill from Hamilton." About what, I've yet to determine. Apparently, there's something highly offensive about encouraging people to exercise and eat healthy. Who knew?

In addition to Bill's colorful outburst, during which he actually used the word "gobbledy-goop," there were plenty of other high points throughout the hour that I was on-air. One of my favorite callers was a woman named Joan, who inquired about the best styles of yoga for seniors. Coupled with a reader query earlier this winter from a woman seeking to help keep her elderly parents active, Joan's question presents an opportune time to outline the best physical activities for seniors in a dedicated post.

Most of us are well aware that staying active keeps the brain and body healthier longer. In fact, I recently read that people who play golf into their later years live, on average, five years longer than those who don't. To that end, here's a sampling of 8 recommended exercises for seniors, including the best styles of yoga and other genres of movement:

Yoga: Choosing the right style of yoga for seniors is imperative. For example, you would be ill-advised to bring grandma to a Bikram class, with its temperatures of upwards of 100 degrees. Not to mention, there's a viable risk of misleading Nana into thinking that shag carpeting is en vogue again, which we all know is not the case but merely one of the great mysteries of Bikram studios around the globe. With all that sweating, why the carpet? Ick! I'm sorry; I digress . . . The good news is that there are PLENTY of styles of yoga to suit the temperature restrictions and taste sensibilities of all of us; seniors are no exception. In fact, when I stumbled into my first yoga class at 16 years-old, I recall being surrounded by retired Cape Codders. My instructor, too, had been teaching yoga since the 70s and had a full head of silvery hair to prove it. (I'm proud to say she's still teaching, and yoga seems to have frozen time for her. She's as radiant as ever; silver hair and all). The style of yoga that we practiced was extremely gentle, billed as hatha, and perfect for maintaining flexibility and mobility, in addition to increasing mental clarity and creating a deep sense of peace.

Look for: Classes or DVDs described as hatha, restorative, or Kripalu. Reference the web for free videos geared toward seniors, such as this series on Expert Village. Access your local recreation center, community hall, senior center, or adult education facilities.

Pilates: With gaggles of svelte athletes, A-listers, movie stars, TV sirens, and tabloid princesses claiming that Pilates has reshaped their figures, it's enough of a trendy buzz to make us forget that this style of exercise was developed by Joseph Pilates while working with hospital bed-bound patients so that they could regain their strength and mobility. Thus, Pilates is a fantastic way for seniors to stay fit and agile.

Look for:
An instructor who's accustomed to working with all age groups, but particularly seniors, beginner-level DVDs that can be done at home, or books on the same topic.

Gyrotonic & Gyrokinesis: I would describe Gyrotonic as the lovechild of Pilates, swimming, ballet, and Tai Chi. I felt amazing after my session at The Movement Center in Boston and learned from Kathy Van Patten, the studio's owner and director, that many of her clients are well into their 70s and 80s. She swears that this system of movement keeps people so limber, healthy, and pain-free that their posture and activity levels betray their years.

Look for: Swanky studios that can afford the overhead associated with the pricey equipment.

Feldenkrais: My first yoga teacher (you know, the radiant one with the beautiful silver locks) used to integrate The Feldenkrais Method into our yoga classes on occasion. While my exposure to this method is limited, I can vouch that it's a very gentle and pleasant form of movement- perfect for seniors. Described as "somatic education that uses gentle movement and directed attention to improve movement and enhance human functioning," Feldenkrais increases range of motion, improves flexibility and coordination, and encourages graceful, efficient movement.

Look for: A teacher near you on the Fendenkrais website:

Tai Chi: In 2000, I traveled around the world (literally circumnavigating the globe), stopping in ten different countries along the way. Vietnam was among my favorite places to visit. Put simply, it took my breath away. In every way possible. Some experiences cracked my heart open and emptied its contents onto the ground, while others gingerly placed it back together again. Among the most wonderful sights that I saw during my travels in Asia was sunrise in one of the town squares of Vietnam. Thankfully, one of my professors tipped me off to wake up before dawn and head down to the town center where I soon found I wasn't alone. In fact, it seemed everyone was there . . . exercising. The groggy sun had yet to join us, but every other resident of the town was awake and greeting the day in a silent, peaceful, and healthy manner. Large groups convened to practice the fluid movements of Tai Chi (an ancient Chinese art, practiced around the world) while others stretched, walked, or jogged. I even watched a man, who I would venture to guess was in his 90s, sit on a park bench and lift his legs up and down in a makeshift, seated, marching action. Along the Charles River in Boston, among throngs of cyclists and runners, this might look downright ridiculous, but the beauty of the entire experience was this: Nobody gave a hoot what they looked like. They were moving because it was the healthiest, most grounding, most naturally invigorating way to begin their day. They weren't wearing fancy clothes or evaluating themselves with watches that track time, pace, heart rate, mileage and caloric intake; they were working "in" as well as "working out." Moreover, I sensed a deep feeling of community and commitment from standing in the heart of a town and watching all of its citizens greet a day together. For me, Tai Chi is symbolic of that experience, with the only goal being to move deliberately and naturally and to give your body a form of expression that feels good.

Look for: Groups that practice Tai Chi together in your area, perhaps along a river, in a park, or on a beach. Check the offerings at your local recreation centers and community halls. In a pinch, call a martial arts school and ask for their recommendation.

Swimming & Water Aerobics: Get thee to the Y [YMCA], and jump in! Exercising in the water is the best way to protect joints, which is imperative as we age. If laps aren't your thing, try holding the pool's edge and flutter-kicking; doing jumping jacks in the shallow end; walking, jogging, or treading water.

Look for: Local YMCAs, health clubs, or universities that have "open swim" times, classes for seniors, or "adult swim" sessions (we all love the kiddies, but nothing interrupts your zen-like state while working out in the pool like an over-enthused game of Marco Polo).

Wii: Nobody saw this coming, but the interactive gaming experience that's reached frenzied levels of popularity among "kids these days" has also received the senior stamp of approval. Assisted living facilities, like one in Virginia operated by the family of a college pal, have started offering this experience to their residents onsite (my friend tells me their residents are hooked!). From bowling to tennis to yoga and more, Wii simulates the experience for users in a fun, unintimidating environment- your home!

Look for: Grandchildren who want to teach their grandparents how to play, assisted living facilities who are open to new activities and technologies, or the nearest retailer (the gaming console runs around $250).

Remember our ultimate fitness goal is not to "get" fit, as if it were a task to be checked off our to-do list; our goal is to live a healthy lifestyle, enabling us to participate in activities we enjoy from sunrise to sunset, alone or in groups, today and everyday.

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