Seniors should be focusing on working large muscle groups; oxygenating the brain through interval training and improving balance to prevent falls.

Jeff Smith, a personal trainer at the Colosseum Gym in Columbia, said fitness trends have evolved over the 38 years he has been in the field. He works one-on-one with seniors and, with people living longer in an affluent area, it’s an ideal place to sell his services.

“Around here, seniors want to travel, and they want to be upright and mobile as long as they possibly can,” said Smith, and that means he works more on functional training than he ever has, keeping his clients on their feet to use their large muscle groups.

The largest muscle group? Your glutes, or your butt, Smith explained. Not just the seniors but “ninety percent of the general public don’t use their glutes.” The result is an increase in knee and lower spine pain and injury.

“We tend to put our weight forward on our toes,” said Smith. “I teach people to keep their weight back more on their heels. If you learn to use your large muscle groups – like your glutes and your upper back muscles – to keep the body upright, you’re independent for a much longer period of time in your life. You can travel; you can get on and off boats.”

After the age of 60, there’s only so much muscle you can build, said Smith, “so I teach people how to use the muscles they already have.”

Easing the fear

Many people fear Alzheimer’s and dementia, particularly if the diseases run in their families. While people don’t have a lot of control over what heredity deals them, they can offset or delay the onset of dementia by oxygenating the brain.

After reading up on research from the National Institutes of Health, Smith
started urging his clients to do aerobic exercise with higher intensity. “This really has to be done with interval training. You have to push yourself,” said Smith, who requires his clients receive clearance from their doctors first. “I do this very carefully and I monitor people very closely.”

A fear of falling also starts to work its way into the senior psyche. “I work every day with people on balancing boards or a balancing apparatus,” said Smith, as well as simpler exercises such as heel-to-toe walking.

“Improving dexterity and coordination is important at any age,” he said. “I’ve seen incredible improvements in balancing. You can be in perfect health at age 70, and then you take that one fall, and other diseases occur after that because you’re bedridden. I’ve seen people who would have lived longer – and pain free.”

Getting stronger, for longer

Barbara Bury, a 76-year old student at the Yoga Center of Columbia, started doing yoga when she was 60. “I had done some form of aerobic exercise pretty much all of my life,” she said. “Yoga, however, opened up a new world for me … one in which I could connect my body, mind and breath.”

Little by little, Bury felt herself getting stronger, more flexible and more focused. “I was gradually introduced to meditation, which has also enhanced my life,” she said. “Over the years I’ve developed a home practice of yoga and meditation, but I still find that the social and community aspects of showing up each week to be with my teachers and friends is immensely important to me.”

Yoga instructor Barbara Day believes that yoga offers seniors an opportunity for physical vitality and for appreciating their wisdom and expressing a sense of peace. “Yoga practice informs safe movement in daily activities, and practicing in community builds community,” she said.

Bury is among an increasing number of seniors practicing yoga, said 66-year-old Kathy Donnelly, owner and director of the center, which has been in business for 27 years. “I have seen a huge increase in seniors practicing yoga,” said Donnelly. “The first gentle classes that we started 20 years ago were for cancer survivors, but as the baby boomers have reached retirement, we now offer extra gentle yoga, chair yoga and yoga for caregivers.”

Donnelly said yoga helps seniors stay strong in their core and legs, keeps the joints moving, and improves range of motion and balance. “All yoga poses can be adapted to account for any student’s limitations,” she said. “We have a very vibrant senior community here.”