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Are you Maintaining Functional Fitness as you Age?

Are you Maintaining Functional Fitness as you Age?
May 05
16:54 2016
Old age is not at all what it used to be. Today, we are expected to live into our 90’s, even to age 100. But a longer life expectancy isn’t a good thing if you aren’t maintaining functional fitness.

As we wrote earlier this month, Americans are living longer, but in poorer health. Personal trainer and gym owner Robin Robertson is striving to do something about this disappointing trend. Her gym in Bellingham, Washington focuses on older clients.

“Our expectations have changed from dying at 75 to living well into our 90’s,” she says. “We could all use tips on how to make those years healthy and vibrant rather than burdensome.”

The number of 100-year-olds increased by a shocking 66% between the years 1980 and 2010. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, more than 20% of Americans will be over age 65 by the year 2029.

It’s not how long you live that matters, it’s how well you live.

Dan Ritchie founded the Functional Aging Institute in 2013 to teach personal trainers and instructors how to work with older clients. The goal is to maintain “functional fitness,” which refers to movements that help with everyday activities like doing laundry or picking something up off the floor.

“This has huge implications for older adults. What do you need to do, want to do, or dream of doing?” he asks. “You want to hike, cycle, or play with grandchildren. Not everyone dreams of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at 70, but whatever you dream of, it will require functional abilities.”

Here’s some advice on how you can make your later years independent, robust, and enjoyable:

Lose weight: 10 pounds of excess weight puts an extra 20-30 pounds of strain on your knees with each and every step. An overweight woman can reduce her chances of developing arthritis in the knees by 50% just by losing 11 pounds!

Exercise: Find activities you enjoy and do them often. Low-impact activities like swimming and cycling promote longevity and are kind to your joints. “We can beef up our joints through muscle and ligament strengthening. Cycling does this without impact or lateral movement,” explains Robertson.

Change your view and take responsibility: aging is not bad! It is a natural process that happens to everyone. Focus on the positives, like spending time with grandchildren and enjoying what is important to you (instead of spending all day at work like you used to).

You are the only one who can control your eating, exercise, and sleeping habits. Are your habits leading to a life of frailty or one of independence?

It’s never too late to make a change, “but that doesn’t mean you should wait,” says Ritchie. “We can get you fit at 60, but if you’ve taken care of yourself from 50 to 60, it’s a whole lot easier.”

An inspiring success story:

son-doong-cave-opengraph“A 76-year-old came to use last year,” says Ritchie. “He wanted to hike Son Doong Cave in Vietnam with his son-in-law and grandson. It’s one of the largest caves in the world, and you get to its entrance via a six-hour hike through virgin jungle. If you don’t do well on the jungle hike, tour operators don’t let you go into the cave.”

The 79-year-old was in good shape but lacked coordination and balance. With dedication and hard work, he was able to make the trip.

Turns out, they couldn’t go into the cave because the 49-year old son-in-law was struggling! “It wasn’t age; it was functional capacity,” says Ritchie.

To work on functional fitness that will support daily activities, choose exercises that involve complex movements rather than a single weight machine that works a specific part of the body. “If we don’t stay active, we lose muscle,” says Robertson. “If we get weaker, we become vulnerable to injury. If we get injured, we lose motivation to do what we used to enjoy. Fear of falling is huge as we get older.”

This domino effect works both ways.

Through exercise, Robertson regularly sees clients eliminate or reduce the need for diabetes and hypertension medication. Likewise, strength training can delay or prevent the need for hip or knee replacement.

Others see a serious improvement in quality of life. Mike Addison (72) and his wife Marcela (79) moved to Bellingham in 2014. At the time, Marcela wouldn’t shower unless Mike was in the room. She was afraid of falling. She was associating old age with weakness. 

“I thought I’d be on a slow downhill slide. But it didn’t happen that way, because I joined this gym! Now I walk to the bathroom and take a shower by myself,” says Marcela happily.

Marcela, who would once clutch her husband’s arm fearfully as she walked, now has the confidence and ability to walk alone. She can lift both her arms above her head and do squats – both of which she could not do when she joined the gym.

Marcela also enjoys the gym’s social events. “All of it comes together to maintain quality of life,” she says.

“There’s a gigantic need for fitness” among aging Americans, says Ritchie. “They don’t want to get old and wait to die. They want to go on adventures, live life to the fullest. And they can afford to — if they have the functional capacity. That’s key.”

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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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