Diet and exercise fads you see on TV or online usually sell themselves by featuring trim, athletic men and women in their 20s. But as the average age in the U.S. shifts older, there is a growing need for workouts tailor-made for retired people to help them maintain independence and lifestyle as they age.
PBS NewsHour recently traveled to Gainesville, Florida, to profile a university-based retirement community — one of more than 70 in the U.S. that create unique opportunities for retirees to enjoy perks of the college community. Residents of Oak Hammock, for example, have access to a 22,000 square foot fitness center and personal instruction by students and staff from University of Florida’s College of Health and Human Performance.
For older people just starting to work out, whether you are 55 or 95 years old, it’s important to ensure that exercise does not cause more harm than good. Oak Hammock’s fitness program director Justin Smith helped NewsHour to outline some tips for older people on how to get active safely.
1. Start low and slow.
You shouldn’t go too hard, too soon in your workouts. Even if you think you are healthy, it is a good idea to get a physician’s permission to start working out or participate in exercise classes.
Identify your goals early on, and do not go from zero to 100 in one session.
2. Avoid dehydration. Get proper nutrition.
As humans age, thirst perception declines. Many seniors stop drinking recommended amounts of water simply because they do not think that they are thirsty. Justin Smith has encountered many retirees at Oak Hammock eager to start an exercise regimen, only to discover they are also chronically dehydrated.
“They need to be drinking fluids if they are going to be working out and to avoid dehydration,” Smith said.
Similarly, the number of taste buds a person has decreases as a person ages, which can affect a person’s appetite for certain foods. Proper nutrition and awareness of what food a person eats is critical to make sure that older exercisers take in enough energy to sustain their workouts.
3. Don’t assume that exercise is the cure.
Whatever your other health issues, exercise cannot take the place of any other doctor-prescribed treatments. While exercise can help a retiree lose weight and improve strength and balance, always consult your physician before starting an exercise regimen.
Smith says trainers can quickly discern when the people they are working with have diverted from their general health plan.
“Especially with a lot of heart patients,” Smith said, “we know right away they have forgotten to take their medications. We can tell by their higher blood pressure and increased heart rate.”
4. Avoid one-size-fits-all types of workout programs.
When retirees come into the Oak Hammock fitness center holding clippings from fitness or health magazines and tell trainers, “I want to do this,” Smith has to explain why these intense, off-the-wall workouts do not account for different abilities of aging bodies.
Smith says retirees should educate themselves about the guidelines for heart rates at their age, be mindful of medication and share honest feedback about exertion.
5. Listen to your body.
Older people who choose to work out on their own should be very aware of how they feel physically as their workout progresses.
“They should listen to their body because their body is going to give them feedback,” he said.
Smith also says that older exercisers need more time to recover in between exercise sessions and that the recuperation process is critical, for example, to increase muscle strength.
6. Find a trainer with good credentials.
Working with a physical trainer, especially when starting out, can be critical to preventing injury. They can help gym-goers practice exercises with good form and properly use the machines.
But Smith says it’s critical to make sure they have proper credentials.
“Interview them like you would interview anyone else for a job,” Smith said. Ask them about about their education, their certifications and their work history.
The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA, whose certification is called CSCS or Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), among others, have rigorous certification processes with high standards.
And when someone says they are certified, ask for proof of their certification. If they cannot provide documentation, then you should be skeptical and keep searching for a trainer.
7. Don’t get caught up in the moment.
When people work out with groups or in classes, the adrenaline can get pumping, increasing motivation to push harder. But especially in group settings, older Americans must realize their own limitations and adjust accordingly.
“Don’t feel obligated to keep up with the group, just because everybody is going at a certain pace or certain intensity level,” Smith recommends. “There is a line between pushing and crossing all the boundaries.
“They can motivate you, but when it gets unreasonable, you have to be able to recognize that.”
8. Leave a few in the tank.
The bodybuilding mentality is to work out until you physically cannot do anymore. But as the body ages, lifting to muscle failure can be dangerous and lead to injury.
“You can lift close to fatigue but I wouldn’t recommend lifting (weights) to muscle failure, which is when you cannot perform a rep anymore,” Smith says. “I would leave a few in the tank. Keep a buffer in there.”
And when it comes to cardiovascular activity, make sure to work out at medium-to-low level intensity. There is no need to test yourself and push too hard.