Older, Wiser, Fitter
By Elizabeth Pope | April 16, 2006
TAKE A LOOK AROUND THE WEIGHT ROOM AT THE GYM OR THE JOGGING path on the Esplanade. Notice something different? Silver-haired jocks have joined the ranks of 20-something hard bodies. No joke -- the 55-plus demographic is the fastest growing segment in the nation's health clubs. At the same time, the popularity of lower-impact activities like Pilates, yoga, and recumbent cycling -- which appeal to older exercisers -- is growing. The number of people 55 or older who exercise more than 100 days per year increased 33 percent from 1998 to 2004, compared with zero growth in the 18-to-34 age bracket, according to American Sports Data Inc., a research firm in Hartsdale, New York. And a quarter of all club memberships nationwide are now purchased by those over the age of 55.
"That's the first time we've hit those numbers," says John Atwood, president of HealthFit, a Needham health club that caters to older adults. "We consult on start-ups around the country, and half the calls I get now are from people looking to start an over-50 club."
As American Sports Data points out, the graying of the fitness industry has roots in the demographic tidal wave of aging boomers and retirees with more time for working out - not to mention the near-constant reminders by health professionals that exercise can help ward off heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, depression, and certain cancers. Social norms have changed, too. Thirty years ago, you'd be hard pressed to find a middle-aged woman pumping iron or a 75-year-old man running a 10k.
These older exercise enthusiasts have not just bolstered the bottom line of health clubs and spawned franchises like Curves for Women, but they may be changing the image of what being old looks and feels like. So, yes, that is your grandmother striding out the door in spandex and Nike Air Max.
SOME LATE BLOOMERS JOIN THE FITNESS BOOM AFTER DECADES of inactivity, only to find they are in the best shape of their lives in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s. Two years ago, 60-year-old Sandra Papson of Jamaica Plain needed a reason to get out of the house after retiring as a middle school art teacher. She joined the Dedham Health & Athletic Complex, where a certified personal trainer showed her the ropes -- highly advisable for novices, as is a doctor's OK to exercise. "I had no idea there were so many people my age and older working out," she says. "I'm not surrounded by beefcake and bodybuilders." Several times a week, she jumps on the treadmill or elliptical trainer and then lifts weights at Nautilus stations. "It's been such a plus in my retirement. My legs and thighs are firmer. I can feel all the muscles in my back now."
Nobody seems to know how many sedentary Americans have morphed into late-life fitness fanatics, but Dr. Walter Ettinger, president of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, suspects the numbers are still small.About half the patients in Ettinger's studies of moderate exercise and its effect on arthritic knee pain continue exercising on their own. "A handful become disciples of exercise, but I'm not sure why or how to predict who it will be," he says. "In my experience, it is a rather unusual event."
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that fewer than half of American adults get the minimum recommended 30 minutes of moderate physical activity most days. (Moderate means a brisk walk at a pace of 3 to 4 miles per hour. Yardwork, gardening, and housework count, too - but only if you put your back into the vacuuming.) Despite such minimal recommendations, more than 25 percent of adults say they are committed couch warmers who get no physical activity in their leisure time at all.
When some Bostonians head for the Barcalounger after work, James Doucette, 59, of Canton, is already in the Dedham Health & Athletic Complex. Two years ago, painful knee surgery and four months on crutches put an end to long, daily walks. When Doucette completed his physical therapy at the Dedham gym, his therapist suggested that he become a full member and take up weight training to restore muscle strength. Now, most evenings he lifts weights and then breaks a sweat on the cardio machines, finishing up with a sauna and a steam bath. "I'm kind of fanatic about it," says Doucette, a self-employed court stenographer. "My job is so high pressure - I used to blow all the time. Now I'm more relaxed. I have tremendous energy, and I sleep like a baby. I'll be in the gym the rest of my life."
If Doucette keeps his resolution, that will be an achievement in itself. About half of those who start an exercise program quit after six months, according to gerontology researcher Diane Klein of the University of Tennessee. So what motivates those paragons of virtue who defy the drop-out rate? Klein says that's exactly what scientists are trying to figure out. Several factors may be at work: After age 50, many adults seek more energy, better sleep, and less stress. And there's vanity -- after all, everybody's got a mirror.
MORE OFTEN THAN YOUNGER PEOPLE, OLDER EXERCISERS -- OR a spouse, sibling, or close friend -- may have had a near-miss or bad diagnosis. Chest pain kick-starts many an exercise routine, and aging parents -- or peers -- may provide a vivid picture of what physical frailty looks like.
Thirteen years ago, Heidi Duskey of Medford was an overweight typographer who smoked 21/2 packs of cigarettes a day. "At age 40, I felt old. I thought, 'I shouldn't feel this lousy,' " says Duskey, now 53. "I just needed a push." During an annual physical, a nurse practitioner asked if she wanted to quit smoking. Duskey said yes. The nurse advised her to enroll in a gym and an American Lung Association smoking cessation program. A nicotine patch and fitness classes five days a week did the rest. "After three months, I lost 10 pounds, and I didn't look or feel like the same person," she says. "I felt absolutely great."
Duskey subsequently changed careers and is now a certified wellness coach as well as a competitive racewalker. She runs a class in Needham for Active Living Every Day, a health program that helps sedentary adults get up and get moving. Duskey teaches people to look for ways to build purposeful movement into their lives, like walking during a two-minute TV commercial. With such simple measures, most people have no difficulty building up to three 10-minute blocks of moderate activity a day - just enough to deliver health benefits.
"Older adults often have negative associations with exercise -- that it will be painful or boring or cause them to fall or get injured," says Bess Marcus, director of Brown University's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. Overweight and inactive people should begin gradually and enlist support from friends and family, she advises. A few personal training sessions or an intro class can take the fear out of entering a weight room jammed with intimidating machines. "Find one or two enjoyable activities and vary them," says Marcus, a clinical psychologist who helped develop the Active Living Every Day program. "Walk near the office one day, then by the beach or in a beautiful park. If safety is a concern, walk with a friend or at the mall or a well-lit high school track. If it isn't enjoyable, you won't keep it up."
People over age 50 have a lot to gain from getting fit. "They've lost more to begin with," says Wayne Westcott, fitness research director of South Shore YMCA in Quincy. Westcott trains adults well into their 90s on Nautilus machines. In his recent study of more than 1,600 sedentary people ages 18 to 80, Westcott found that older exercisers gained muscle just as fast as younger people.
THERE'S SOLID SCIENCE BEHIND WHY STRENGTH TRAINING works such rapid magic on midlife and older adults. After age 45, adults start losing about one-third to a half-pound of muscle and gain that much body fat every year, says Miriam Nelson of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. "Eventually you become so weak you can't walk up stairs or get out of a chair without assistance."
In the late 1980s, Dr. Irwin Rosenberg, former dean of the Friedman School, coined the term "sarcopenia" to describe this loss of muscle mass. At the time, Tufts researchers were conducting landmark strength-training studies on older sedentary men and women, including frail 90-year-olds in nursing homes using walkers and canes. Participants trained the same way younger people do -- with progressively heavier weights. (Earlier studies on older adults had shown little improvement in strength, probably because lighter weights were used to avoid injury.) This time, volunteers worked at 80 percent of their capacity, using weights heavy enough to lift eight times with good form. After weight training three times a week for eight weeks, the volunteers increased their strength an average of 175 percent. Two women dumped their canes.
Subsequent studies have shown that weight training can restore muscle, rebuild bone, and alleviate arthritis pain in older adults. "But soup cans don't work," says Nelson. "You've got to get the right equipment, work with a trainer, read a book, or join a program." Nelson, author of Strong Women Stay Slim and other books, maintains a website (strongwomen.com) with links to local community programs.
Nelson's books helped Louise Rice, 58, of Cambridge, adopt the fitness habit after years of battling her weight. "Strong Women Stay Slim was my bible," says Rice, director of public health nursing for the city of Cambridge. In 1999, after her doctor had told her "for the umpteenth time" that she needed to drop some pounds, Rice started working with a personal trainer at Healthworks. In the past, she'd lost weight only to regain it, but this time she combined strength training with a balanced diet. Her trainer provided instruction and encouragement, and after eight months, she had lost 55 pounds. Now she keeps it off with three or four early-morning gym visits a week. "People say it takes six months to a year before exercise becomes a habit, and that was true for me," says Rice.
That's the take-home message. Behavioral change isn't a quick fix, and shedding a sluggish lifestyle doesn't happen overnight. Sedentary, overweight, and older adults should start slowly, set realistic short-term goals, and expect a few relapses. "Now if I miss out on my gym time," Rice says, "I don't feel well and look forward to getting back."
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