Creating Exceptional Senior Fitness Experiences: The Basics

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

To create exceptional senior fitness experiences, first you need to start with the basics!

Being physically active has so many amazing benefits including increased attention and information processing, promoting a positive emotional state, and of course, the physical benefits. The brain and the body are not separate - they work together. When you get the blood pumping through the body it is also getting pumped through the brain. You can see the brain on the left looks blueish green, and after 20 minutes of physical activity, you see it is colorful and full of energy. There are also endorphins that get released when we exercise which help to elevate our mood and make us feel more energized.

Why is the topic of physical activity and older adults so important?

Our population is ageing globally. Approximately 90% of seniors over 65 years of age live with at least one chronic condition and 33% of seniors over 65 years of age experiences a fall each year. Just the physical benefits of ensuring that we have really great senior fitness programs will help our population to age successfully, but there are so many other benefits too. The intellectual, emotional, and social benefits are huge. Older adults are worried about getting Alzheimer’s and dementia. Social isolation and aging is a concern. Being physically active is a way to ensure overall wellness.

Before we can get into the art of creating exceptional fitness experiences, we need to start with the basics.

In order to create exceptional senior fitness experiences, we need to start by challenging our beliefs and assumptions about exercise and aging. There is a widespread misconception that once an individual is a certain age, they are no longer able to do certain things. You may have heard someone say, “I am 86, I can’t do that anymore”. This shows how a personal belief leads to lack of physical activity, which then leads to further physical decline and a whole host of issues. You may have heard a well-meaning caregiver say, “Take it easy, you’re 86. It’s time to slow down”. There is no age at which we need to slow down. In fact, many of the negative consequences associated with aging are actually associated with inactivity. Therefore, it is incredibly important that we rewrite the aging narrative and encourage individuals of all ages to be active in a safe way.

Why do you think images of seniors stretching are the most popular images used to advertise senior fitness?

Health, Recreation and Fitness Professionals who are unsure about how to safely engage older adults in exercise often default to stretching. Stretching seems like a low risk way to get older adults moving, but it is not enough. To help older adults maintain or increase their current level of fitness and independence much more than stretching is required.

Let’s debunk these three common myths about aging and exercise:

  1. “I’m too old”: Research tells us that older exercisers are able to see increases and gains similar to younger exercisers. Our muscles don’t know how old we are. Muscles simply respond and react to the tensions that are placed upon them and they adapt accordingly. If we take away those tensions and resistance, then our muscles atrophy, or lose their strength. This happens at every age but accelerates as we age.

  2. “I have a chronic condition”: Research shows that individuals with chronic conditions can benefit from taking part in regular physical activity. This includes individuals with heart disease, arthritis, high blood pressure, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, cancer and more. In one study that looked at individuals with heart blockages, one group got a stent to restore blood whereas another group completed 20 minutes a day on an exercise bike and a weekly 60-minute aerobics class. One year later, 88% of the group that exercised were cardiac event free compared to only 70% of the group that received the stents. It’s remarkable that exercise can sometimes prove more impactful than modern medicine.

  3. “Exercise could be dangerous”: More often than not, and when approved by a primary physician, the benefits of exercise more than outweigh any potential risks.

Now that we have challenged our thinking and debunked some common myths about exercise and aging, where do we start? Creating a high-quality senior fitness offering starts with understanding the physical activity guidelines for older adults.

Many health, fitness, and wellness professionals have no problem rattling off these guidelines, but where programs fall down is in truly offering ways for older adults to meet these guidelines. To see if your program makes the cut, perform a program FITT Audit.

FITT stands for Frequency, Intensity, Time, and Type. These are the four elements you need to think about when trying to reach a fitness goal. In our case, the goals we are working toward are the physical activity guidelines for older adults.

Let’s start by applying the FITT Principle to reaching 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

Type: Aerobic activity. This includes taking part in activities such as aerobics classes, walking, cycling, or any activity that gets the heart and lungs pumping.

Time: the guideline tells us older adults need to achieve 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week. The specific time in a single session will depend on the individual’s ability to maintain the moderate to vigorous intensity. We will address this below in frequency.

Intensity: Moderate to vigorous. To obtain this intensity, older adults should work between a 5-7 on a scale from 1-10. At this intensity, the individual should be able to talk but feel breathy and could not sing.

Frequency: To determine the frequency, we need to determine how much time on average the older adult can spend exercising at the moderate to vigorous intensity. For example, maybe the older adult can maintain the moderate to vigorous intensity for 20 minutes. We also need to take into consideration the warmup and cool down. Warmups should range between 5-10 minutes. A warmup is important at every age, but it is especially important for older adults whose bodies sometimes require more time to adjust to the demands of physical activity. A warmup allows our heart and lungs to adapt to the new demands being placed on the body. Therefore, to obtain 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity, it takes at least 30 minutes of exercise when you consider the addition of a warmup and cool down. For example, a 30-minute walking group includes a warmup where the walking pace slowly increases until the moderate to vigorous pace is achieved. At the end of the workout, the pace is gradually decreased as the exerciser prepares to complete a stretch at the end. If the older adult chooses to perform bouts of 20 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic activity per workout, the frequency required is 7.5 times