Thursday, April 23, 2009

Never Too Late To Start, More Seniors Are Regularly Taking Part In Exercise Programs

“Ten years ago, Akiko Okamoto would have been a rare sight at the gym. But today, the 80-year-old Gardena resident is right at home, part of the growing contingent of older adults who are trading walkers and rocking chairs for barbells and treadmills. Research has long shown the benefits of exercising in staving off the aging process, but now, health experts are urging seniors to start working out even if they've never exercised before - and older adults seem to be heeding that advice. ‘I feel good after I exercise,’ said Okamoto, who wouldn't dream of missing her weekly SilverSneakers water aerobics class at Bally Total Fitness in Torrance. There, she spends an hour building strength with underwater jumping jacks, squats and boxing combinations. ‘When I go home, I'm relaxed.’ Today, adults age 55 and older make up nearly 25 percent of the nation's health club membership, a segment that has more than quadrupled since 1990. Many of these older adults are starting exercise programs for the first time, thanks to a host of incentives and resources geared to their needs, including free gym memberships and specialized training. For these fitness newbies, exercise may not extend life, but it can drastically improve the quality of it, said Jan Schroeder, a professor of kinesiology at California State University, Long Beach, and an expert in fitness for older adults. By improving balance, coordination and strength, older adults can hope to live independently, play with their grandchildren and avoid debilitating falls and injuries. ‘It is never too late to start exercising. No matter how late in life you start, you'll see benefits,’ Schroeder said. Science backs up the claim. In a landmark 1994 study from Tufts University, researchers found that even the most frail and elderly adults benefited from exercise. The study put nursing-home patients in their 80s and 90s on a regular resistance-training program. After 10 weeks, the exercisers had more than doubled their strength, and they were walking faster and climbing stairs better than their inactive peers. Edita Antonian, a Glendale-based personal trainer, has worked with clients in their 80s. Although she spends a lot of time on exercises to improve posture, flexibility and range o motion, Antonian also incorporates cardiovascular training and weight-lifting, mainstays of traditional workout programs. Her older clients may need to use light weights or modify the exercises, but they benefit - even at an advanced age - from these workouts. ‘Weights are very beneficial, because they'll make the bones denser and help prevent osteoporosis,’ a common ailment among seniors, Antonian said. Older adults wanting to start a workout regimen will find lots of resources and money-saving deals, as gyms increasingly cater to this fast-growing demographic. Several leading health insurers, including Blue Shield of California and Humana, will buy gym memberships for their older clients through the SilverSneakers program, and many fitness centers offer specialized senior fitness classes. These group exercise classes take the guesswork out of starting a workout program, Schroeder said. They teach newcomers the fitness basics and focus on exercises that improve balance, strength and flexibility using props and modifications to ease the stress on arthritic joints.”

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