Updated: Apr 4
In our previous blog, Creating Exceptional Fitness Experiences: The Basics, we began by checking in on and challenging our beliefs and biases of aging and exercise. We debunked some common myths and misconceptions such as: “I’m too old”, “I have a chronic condition”, and “Exercise could be dangerous”. Then we reviewed the most important components for ensuring your senior fitness program is creating opportunities for your participants to reach the physical activity guidelines for older adults by performing a program FITT Audit.
Now that we have the basics down, we discuss taking your program to the next level and creating a multi-dimensional fitness experience.
Being physically active is an opportunity to reap more than just the physical benefits. Many organizations are looking for ways to keep the seniors they serve physically strong, intellectually sharp, and socially connected. Often, organizations have an initiative for each of these goals when the most effective way to check off all the boxes is with one amazing fitness program.
To create a multi-dimensional fitness experience, first we need to have an understanding of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. The Six Dimensions of Wellness Model was developed by Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute. Let’s explore the Six Dimensions of Wellness and how to use them to create a multi-dimensional fitness experience for the seniors you serve.
“The physical dimension recognizes the need for regular physical activity. As you travel the wellness path, you’ll strive to spend time building physical strength, flexibility and endurance
while also taking safety precautions so you may travel your path successfully, including medical self-care and appropriate use of a medical system.”
Helping the seniors you serve to be physically well should include helping them to meet the physical activity guidelines for older adults. Review Creating Exceptional Fitness Experiences: The Basics to ensure your program checks the box on physical wellness.
“A well person expands his or her knowledge and skills while discovering the potential for sharing his or her gifts with others…a well person cherishes intellectual growth and stimulation”.
Brain health is becoming a top priority for older adults. A poll conducted in the UK found that people are now more afraid of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s than they are of getting cancer. For many, the idea of “losing their mind” or not being able to remember themselves or their loved ones is terrifying. Luckily, the research is beginning to pile up on the intellectual/brain benefits of physical activity. To preserve your brain health, put down the sudoku and get moving! The World Health Organization’s guidelines for the risk reduction of cognitive decline and dementia cites physical activity as one of the best ways (better than cognitive interventions like brain games/puzzles) for reducing the risk of cognitive decline and dementia.
The reason for this is simple - the brain and the body are not separate. When you get physically active, blood flow increases, and with it, nutrients, and oxygen. Remember the brain scan below:
After just 20 minutes of physical activity we see heightened attention and faster information processing.
Research by Erikson Et. Al completed a randomized controlled trial with 120 older adults who were assigned to an aerobic exercise group or a stretching group. They found that the older adults who took part in the aerobic exercise training saw an increase in the size of the anterior hippocampus (responsible for information processing and memory) and improvements in spatial memory. Aerobic training increased hippocampal volume by 2%, effectively reversing age-related loss in volume by 1 to 2 years! The group who took part in the stretching intervention displayed a 1.40% decline over this same interval. This study demonstrates two important points:
Exercising is good for the brain!
Not all exercises are created equal, so be sure to refer back to Creating Exceptional Fitness Experiences: The Basics to ensure you are helping the older adults you serve to take part in the right kinds of activities.
Now, how can you incorporate an intentional intellectual component into your fitness program?
As an instructor, saying the name of an exercise and counting to 10 is not only boring, it’s a missed opportunity. Here are a few ways to incorporate some brain changes while also making your program more fun and interesting:
Counting in another language: If you insist on sticking with the counting, then try counting in another language. There are so many language apps available to help you learn to count to 10 in variety of languages, or better yet, see what languages the participants in your class speak and have them lead the class through counting to 10. This tactic is good for the brain and has occupational benefits (more on this later) for the participants leading the group.
The Alphabet Game: Pick a theme such as countries, girl/boy names, fruit/vegetables, cars, etc. and go around the circle or room having participants name something according to the corresponding letter of the alphabet. For example, Algeria, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, England, etc. Games like this really help to pass the time and take the participant’s mind off the work.
Tongue twisters: Tongue Twisters or poems are another great way to challenge the brain. Try alternating between 4 heel digs and 4 marches while saying the following: “Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy was he?”
Counting in patterns: Try alternating between 4 heel digs and 4 marches, but this time count backwards from 100 by 3’s, or 7’s.
Movement Combinations: This is our favourite way to incorporate a brain challenge at StrongerU Senior Fitness. Every one of our 30-minute StrongerU Senior Fitness classes involves interesting movement combinations that require participants to move through the stages of motor learning. First, participants experience the cognitive stage of motor learning where they are really having to think about movement combination – for example, side raise, front raise, biceps curl, hammer curl. Once they do a few repetitions of the combination they move into the associative stage. This is where the chorus comes back on and the combination becomes a little more familiar. Finally, the autonomous stage where your participants don’t even really need to think about the movement. Participants hear the chorus coming and muscle memory takes over.
Changing up your movements and formats: If you teach your participants the same exercises day after day, and week after week, it’s easy for them to go on autopilot. StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructors get 30-minutes of new content each month which keeps their classes fresh and their participants engaged.
“The social dimension encourages contributing to one’s environment and community. It emphasizes the interdependence between others and nature.”
There are so many benefits of being socially active including: a stronger immune system, better mental health, increased feelings of wellbeing, and decreased depression. Group fitness has a natural social component. You may start to see the group spending time together after class, hydrating and chatting, but there are other ways to build in a purposeful social component:
Having the group work toward a common goal: Let’s say you lead a walking group. Setting a goal for the group such as attaining a certain number of steps, laps, or length of time is a great way to get the group to work together and to encourage one another. Another example is a strength-based class working together, and cheering each other on, to increase the weight of the dumbbells they are using or the number of repetitions they can complete.
Have Fun: This may sound obvious, but what are you intentionally doing to make your class fun or to make your participants laugh? Maya Angelou said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” If you want participants to keep coming to your class, and tell their friends too, then make it fun!
Shared experience: Whether an experience is positive or negative, those who share that experience have an opportunity to build a stronger relationship as a result. For example, maybe you have two people who really hate exercise, but join in anyways because they know it's good for them. Sit these two individuals next to each and say, “Hi Margaret, I want to introduce you to Joan. She is not a big fan of exercise either, so I thought you two might like to sit next to one another and enjoy an eye roll at my expense from time to time”.
Partner and Team Work: Performing drills and exercises in partners, or as a group, is a great way to get social. An example of two participants working together is a coordination exercise where each partner has a ball. One partner bounces their ball to their partner while the other partner tosses. They have to work together to ensure they perform the movements at the same time, so their hands become free to receive the ball headed their way. An exercise like this is great for coordination and also great for a laugh when the drill doesn’t go as planned and the balls go flying.
“The emotional dimension recognizes awareness and acceptance of one’s feelings. Emotional wellness includes the degree to which one feels positive and enthusiastic about one’s self and life.”
When you exercise, hormones (such as endorphins) are released. These hormones have mood-boosting effects, help increase energy, improve self-esteem and confidence, and can help you sleep better. Create an emotional connection to your program by:
Incorporating music: Sounds and music can evoke emotionally charged memories. The same part of the brain that's responsible for processing our senses is also responsible for storing emotional memories. I’m sure you have experienced it. A song comes on the radio and you instantly feel joy, or sadness, tied to something the song reminds you of. Research is showing that exercising to music helps individuals exercise for longer and at higher intensities. This is why every StrongerU Senior Fitness class is paired to music.
Incorporating goal setting: When we set goals, and achieve them, we feel positive and encouraged to continue with the activity to see more positive results. Encourage your participants to set goals. For example, being able to complete sit to stands without using the arms of the chair, being able to walk further, attending 3 classes per week, etc. Once you know the goals of your group, it is important to help them work towards those goals. Don’t forget to celebrate as a group when someone hits their goal. Consider creating a “Wall of Goals” where everyone’s goals are listed proudly as a reminder and motivator.
Know their WHY: What is the powerful, emotional, and motivating reason why each of your participants attend your class? Is it to feel confident going out with their friends for lunch again, is it to keep up with their grandkids, is it to prepare for an upcoming trip where there will be a lot of walking? Knowing your participants 'why' will help you to keep them moving in the right direction toward their goals.
“The occupational dimension recognizes personal satisfaction and enrichment in one’s life through work. At the center of occupational wellness is the premise that occupational development is related to one’s attitude about one’s work. Traveling a path toward your occupational wellness, you’ll contribute your unique gifts, skills, and talents to work that is both personally meaningful and rewarding.”
This dimension of wellness is huge! Whether you refer to this dimension as the occupational, vocational, or purposeful dimension, being able to contribute purposefully to society or community has been shown to lower the risk of having a heart attack, stroke, heart disease and a whole host of things. Many of you reading this are likely looking forward to retirement, but retirement can also be met with a sense of loss in purpose. Older adults sometimes feel like, “I’m just sort of sitting around” or “I am happy to have family taking care of me, but I feel as though I’m not able to do anything for myself”. We all have an innate need to feel as though we are contributing, and we are needed. We have touched on a few ways to incorporate a sense of purpose into your program already: leading the group in counting in another language, having a reason WHY, and goal setting. Also try incorporating:
An Active Aging Ambassadors Program: We encourage all StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructors to appoint Active Aging Ambassadors. These are participants who exemplify an active aging lifestyle and want to encourage their friends and peers to do the same. Each year we recognize one exceptional Active Aging Ambassador globally. Give these ambassadors a name tag with their name and role, or special t-shirt, and be sure to recognize them through volunteer appreciation initiatives and events.
Assigning your participants a role: This could be helping to set up the chairs, handing out water, welcoming new participants, taking attendance, handing out equipment, etc. You will find participants become really committed to their roles no matter how small they are.
“The spiritual dimension recognizes our search for meaning and purpose in human existence. It includes the development of a deep appreciation for the depth and expanse of life and natural forces that exist in the universe.”
The Spiritual dimension of wellness is often associated with spirituality and religion. Religious and spiritual practices such as prayer or mediation are linked to a lower heart rate, reduced blood pressure, and reduced stress. Incorporating prayer-like or meditative components into your program can help your participants to reap these benefits. Consider the following:
Purposeful breathing: Starting or ending your class with a few purposeful and deep breaths.
Incorporating introspection or self-reflection: Create an opportunity at the end or beginning of class for participants to check in with themselves, think about how they are feeling, clear their mind, or set an intention for the class.
Meditation or guided relaxation practice: StrongerU Stretch ends with 10 minutes of guided relaxation. There is always a theme such as Gratitude, Joy, Letting Go, etc. for the participants to explore. There are tons of free guided meditation and relaxation resources available on YouTube to easily incorporate this into your program.
The Six Dimensions of Wellness Model developed by Dr. Bill Hettler does not include the environmental dimension, but more and more wellness models are choosing to incorporate an environmental component.
“Environmental wellness inspires us to live a lifestyle that is respectful of our surroundings. Environmental well-being promotes interaction with nature and your personal environment.”
Research shows that being in nature helps to boost energy, improve the immune system, and enhance creativity. Here are some ways to incorporate the environmental dimension into your program:
Get outside: When the weather allows, take an opportunity to take your class outdoors.
Visit local parks: Whether for a group fitness class, walking group, or a meditation.
We have now reviewed the Six Dimensions of Wellness, plus the environmental dimension of wellness. We hope you’ll incorporate some of these ideas into your program in order to create fitness experiences for the older adults you serve. For more tips and strategies to enhance your senior fitness program, check out our Art of Senior Fitness Program Design Video Series. To learn more about StrongerU Senior Fitness, and becoming and instructor, visit https://www.strongeruseniorfitness.com/
Leave a comment below sharing your best practices for creating a multi-dimensional fitness experience.
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