A gym class for older exercisers

Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force
Mature people stretch after physical training. Photo U.S. Air Force

My personal trainer (oh that sounds pretentious) is soon to start a class for the over-60s. I must admit I have hassled her over this, with pep talks about growing the business, extending her client base, and the splendid loyalty of older people once we find a regular activity that suits our needs. Truth is, the strength classes that I had enjoyed had been cancelled, and I was longing for an appropriate class. I can’t wait.

While attending normal Crossfit classes, I began to analyse just how my needs differed from the other patrons. I’d guess the majority are in their 20s–40s, with one or two 50+. But I didn’t spot anyone else in their 70s at the time.

My friends over 60 were also unwitting case studies. My dance group friends all have their own programmes, because they are active, kinetic people. I see them swimming or aqua-jogging, or out walking, or off to Pilates or yoga or another dance event. I’ve been thinking about their needs and likes, as well as my own.

What I notice about older people exercising

  1. A wide range of abilities: they vary far more than do those of younger people.
  2. We need to work on balance to prevent falls. Tai Chi (for me), yoga for my friends.
  3. Stretching is crucial — and potentially painful— for people with arthritis.
  4. Getting up from sitting is a timed test of fitness for older people and a big problem with low soft chairs.
  5. My friend Jan runs an exercise group and every week they practice getting up from lying on the floor: this is a potential life-saver when old people fall. (The Feldenkrais corkscrew method is a cunning trick, but everyone is different.)
  6. It’s probably better to use hand weights than bars.
  7. It’s not essential to keep increasing weights. Lowering weights slowly can have even greater impact with older people (AUT research).
  8. Some (I) get dizzy from low blood pressure: so please, no exercises that require tipping the head or sudden head movements, no fast spurts of running, skipping, and OMG no burpees!
  9. Some (I) get dizzy from low oxygen intake: that’s different, and better breathing helps. I hope this will reduce as I get fitter 🙂
  10. Stress incontinence is common: so beware of making us skip and jump.
  11. Some older people need the option of doing exercises sitting down.
  12. Music: not loud (we hate that) — take it easy but no golden oldies from the 1940s please.
  13. KISS: keep instructions super-simple. None of that 2 x 200 @ 50%, 1 x 200 @ 75% 3 x 400 @ 90% business. Our short-term memory may be short but we have other qualities.
  14. I want to be pushed but not hurried!

Recent research on the impact of exercise on older brains and bodies

We older people get VERRRRRRY worried about Alzheimers and other cognitive decline so any research about how exercise reduces that risk is really encouraging. HIIT is all the rage at present, but of course we need a variety of forms. Bernard Levine’s programme sort of fits with what I aim to do. He sounds very sensible.

Do you like to exercise in a class?

Most older gym members seem to exercise independently, or with a group of friends, rather than attend classes. But I’m assuming, rightly or wrongly, that at least some people over 60 would would like to include an appropriate weekly class or two at the gym in their personal exercise regime.

Gym classes are not the whole picture. (I also love to dance and walk and swim, and sometimes I even embark on a feeble jog nowadays.) But a great gym class is a natty combination of supervision, structure, and socialising. Am I alone in this view?

How I became a born-again walker

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A learner is sometimes the best teacher.

bootcamp2015-small 2Who am I to give advice about walking? Somebody who used to be not a human as we know it but a balloon on a string, that’s who.

I deeply appreciate the joy of walking for that very reason: for years I was virtually unconscious of my body when out for a trot. All my attention was locked inside my brain. And what an astounding machine it was too, by gum.

I was a mindless walker

Think think think. Puzzle puzzle puzzle. Imagine imagine imagine. I was a biological thinking machine, propelled forward horizontally by mysterious means. I was conscious only of my thoughts; I cared only for my thoughts.

I experienced myself as a free-floating brain sailing over footpaths and dangling something vague beneath me. That something vague was… my body. Legs? What legs?

You were right on the button, Vi!

My mother-in-law Vi used to say, often, in fact pretty much daily, “As long as you’ve got your health…” A cliché, and so true. By the time she died, she had 20 serious health conditions—19 that she knew about, plus dementia. She began suffering from arthritis in her thirties; even at that age, the idea of going for a walk for pleasure was completely alien to her.

Well, Vi, I’ve been a hell of a lot luckier than you were. And I’ll carry on walking, which is both a cause and effect of having my health, as you put it.

Walking up and down stairs. Walking to the pool on Tuesdays. Walking over Mt Vic on Fridays. Walking to town for errands and entertainment. Walking the compost bucket to the community gardens. Walking my grandson to the park on Saturdays. Walking to meet friends. And once in a while, most deliciously, walking on a beach or in a forest.

Enjoy your walk! 

You’ll have your own walking routes and reasons. Walking the dog? Hiking in the Solomon Islands, shopping for hot air balloons, touring the estate?

Enjoy your walk. It’s your very own. Your walk is your choice, your walk is you.
Enjoy your walk. Even if you are in a wheelchair or using a walker.
Enjoy your walk. That’s not just a cliché: it’s a prescription.

Image from Chiaroscuro 1910, Senior Class Yearbook, University of Montevallo, via Internet Archive Book Images. Image of cyclists taken by a friend or relative, but I forget who, sorry.

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Doing the Otago Rail Trail with friends: my 70th birthday treat and a celebration of sheer good luck so far

Joy of dancing

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Imperfect but full of joy—that’s us, the Crows Feet Dance Collective. Forty women, average age 55, range 39–76, skilled and unskilled.

Last weekend we performed at the Tempo Dance Fest at Q Theatre in Auckland. If you are a New Zealander, you’ll understand that performing in our biggest city was rather an intimidating prospect for a community collective —and thrilling. But the organisation was excellent, the theatre a friendly space, and the audiences warm and enthusiastic. We had a marvellous time.

Read the review if you’d like to know more about our show.
Read Dr Hanna on the fascinating effects of dancing on the brain — an excerpt follows.

And go find a chance to dance if you can. Trust me, it’s never too late; for example, I joined the Crows at 66, more than ten years ago, and while I’m no star and I often stumble, I manage very well indeed. Enough to get the joy of dancing, and that magic performance buzz, and a cluster of truly remarkable friends.

Dancing is a language, another way of writing into life

A language is a method of conveying complex ideas and emotions. It has representations of information, and rules for how the representations can be combined. As a means of conveying ideas and emotions, with or without recourse to sound, dance language draws upon similar places and thought processes in the brain as verbal language. Dance, like verbal language, has vocabulary (locomotion and gestures in dance), grammar or syntax (rules for putting the vocabulary together and justifying how one movement can fol­low another), and semantics (meaning). Verbal language strings together sequences of words, and dance strings together sequences of movement to make phrases and sentences. Meaning may be story-telling or abstract, playing with form or chance.

Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD, is the author of “Learning to Dance: The Brain’s Cognition, Emotion, and Movement” Judith Lynne Hanna, PhD.

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Dancing friends: a few of the Crows Feet Dance Collective 2016

When it comes to exercise, less is less

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bootcamp2015-small 2Obviously, a good exercise programme was always going to be high on my boot camp list of challenges. To prepare for a happy retirement without built-in exercise would just be ridiculous, a denial of all scientific evidence on the subject of aging.

 A funny thing happens every time a new research project confirms the power of exercise to improve cognition, physical health, mental health and happiness: lifestyle journalists tend to interpret the results in terms of minimum dosage.

If you just get off your bum now and then, they say, it’ll save your life. Just get on an exercycle for 15 minutes a week. Just walk for 10 minutes a month. Just roll over in bed. They’re assuming that weall want to know how little exercise we can get away with.

Of course, they may be right about our extremely low ambitions. And it’s true that any exercise, even a few steps per day, is exponentially better than no exercise at all.

However, aiming at the minimum implies that exercise is a tedious chore or a virtual vitamin pill. “Let’s get this over and done with as fast as possible so we can get into the tasty part of the day.”

Don’t take exercise like a pill

If you take exercise like a pill, it’s no fun. And if it’s no fun, the habit is not likely to stick. I should know: I’ve been there, done that.

For about five years, an exercycle sat in a corner of my living room. Perfectly positioned for watching TV. Grudgingly, cynically, I intended to use it for just 15 minutes once or twice a week in the evenings. I figured that would not be hard. But it was. The ugly beast was as good as new when I sold it on Trademe.

Similarly, a set of weights is lurking amongst my gardening tools. For a couple of months I used them twice a week … then once a week … for just 10 minutes or so each time. They’re getting rusty now.

When it comes to exercise, less is not more: less is less. And before you know it, less becomes nothing.

So in my boot camp I decided to shoot for a happy-making programme. It’s only a small jump from exercise as a duty to exercise for pleasure. I need to be rewarded by more than a sense of righteousness: like most people I need immediate gratification too.

Your pleasure is my drudgery and vice versa

Everyone’s different! Isn’t that great? So don’t imagine I’m telling you what sort of exercise programme you should be following.

I never got any joy from a brief session by myself on the exercycle: it was not an end in itself for me—but some people get a buzz out of that.  Working the dumb bells all alone in my lounge seemed pointless—but you might just love it.

The thing is for each of us to find a programme that suits us personally, something that brings its own rewards so that we are eager to achieve.

Exercise as a pleasure

Exercise as a pill is unnatural and I suspect, counter-productive. If you enjoy tennis or golf, for example, you don’t set out to do the minimum. You don’t say to your friends, let’s just have one serve each, or let’s just play two holes. Where’s the fun in that? You play as much as you can, not as little as you can, because you are playing for pleasure.

The pleasure of companionship or at least company. The pleasure of muscles squidging, joints loosening, skin glowing, heart pumping, chest expanding, feet steadying, a good shot. The pleasure of increasing mastery. The concomitant pleasures of better sleep, better mood, better brain.

No matter what your age, the best exercise brings a quiet sense of power and freedom and satisfaction. On so many levels, it feels good!

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Image from “Cycling art, energy and locomotion: a series of remarks on the development of bicycles, tricycles, and man-motor carriages” (1889) by Scott, Robert Pittis. Internet Archive Book Images. Photo of me cycling in Tonga by Jamie Bull.

Accessibility expert lives in an inaccessible home

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Rollstuhl Farfler’s 3-wheel wheelchair, 1655. Public domain.

bootcamp2015-small 2In which I admit that my commitment to accessibility is not without limits.

There’s a limit to how far I’m prepared to plan ahead. Making my home safe, shareable and secure is as far as I’m willing to go at this stage.

One day I may need a walker or a wheelchair. That’s on the cards for someone who lives to 99. Does that mean I’m planning to make my home wheelchair accessible? No way. Not possible.

Hills, stairs and storeys

It so happens that the apartment I love is on a hill, up some stairs, and two storeys high. Worse, it’s an art deco building with walls made of nine-inch thick reinforced concrete. Any attempt to widen the doorways would be ill-advised for engineering and aesthetic reasons.

There’s a paradox here. In my professional life, accessibility looms large. My company audits websites for accessibility and trains writers to make their digital content accessible to everyone, including readers with disabilities of any sort—for example of vision, hearing, mobility or other physical problems. But when I need a wheelchair-accessible home, I’ll have to move.

This place is unfixable

Sometimes I stare out the window and visualise lifts. Or drone-delivery to my rooftop deck. Or beam-me-up-Scotty teleportation. They’re all equally improbable ways of conveying an old lady upstairs, given the type of building I live in.

All the more reason to get cracking on all the other boot camp challenges. As the apartment has its intransigent challenges, I’ll need to be in top form.

When it’s time to move, I’ll move. That’ll be at least 10 if not 20 years hence—and I sincerely hope, never.

When youth challenges age in the playground, competition is fierce

Thank goodness for Ruby (not her real name), my almost-teenage granddaughter.  When she visits on Mondays after school, she often takes me to the local playground and sets challenges. This spurs me on, and  I might even secretly practise on Saturday mornings when I take 3-year-old grandson Finn (not his real name) to the very same playground. I’m not saying I do. I’m not saying I don’t.

We are both fiercely competitive on these occasions, but we are also kind.

Yesterday challenge #1 was a race over a very steep, rough track up and down a hill.  I always win this one, because I am fearless.

Rachel standing on a high fence.
I climbed the fence!

Challenge #2 was climbing an unclimbable barrier around a tree, using a conveniently placed stick. For the first time, I actually achieved this. Feeling proud! But Ruby did it faster.

The pigeon-toed approach to walking a log.
The pigeon-toed approach to walking a log.

Challenge #3 was to walk along a log barrier without falling off. I achieved about 20 metres by dint of a new pigeon-toed technique.

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The Peter Pan way of falling off a log.

Falling off a log is easy, I grant you that. But this too became a joyful event when I applied the Peter Pan technique. I lost the challenge but improved my personal best.

Challenge #4 was swinging from the monkey bars. Ruby always beats me but I did make it to the fifth bar. Not bad, huh?

Who can swing the highest?
Who can swing the highest?

The fifth challenge was impossible for us to judge: who could swing highest? I reckon we were quits.

Final score: Ruby: 3, Granny: 1, R&G equal: 1.

Do you have grandchildren who push you beyond your personal best? If so, you know how lucky you are.


Thanks to Ruby for the photos. Masterly!