From the Experience Archives: April 16, 2008
Ramping Up Senior Fitness
Recently SFA president Janie Clark, M.A., was asked to write an article for Parks & Recreation, the official publication of the National Recreation and Park Association. The publisher requested information for recreation managers who are considering offering a senior fitness program for the first time. In addition to general programming ideas, they were interested in what types of features to look for in strength training equipment. Following is Janie’s article, reprinted by permission of Parks & Recreation magazine and the National Recreation and Park Association:
Perhaps your facility is planning to launch a senior-specific exercise program. Or maybe you'd like to infuse new life into existing services to ensure their continued success. Following are some suggestions on how to start or ramp up your senior fitness programming.
Offer Sound Activity Choices
Physical activity does not have to be conventional exercise to provide important physiological and psychosocial benefits. Good examples include senior sports leagues and various types of dance including ballroom dancing, square dancing, folk dancing, and line dancing. Although a complete physical fitness program must include certain training components (cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, flexibility, and balance), any element lacking in a greatly enjoyed activity can be pursued separately.
Fitness for older adults can take one of many forms. Senior personal training is on the rise. Meanwhile certain forms of group exercise have proven ever popular among older adults, including aquatic fitness classes, tai chi, gentle yoga (which takes special care not to overtax the joints), low-impact aerobic dance, and fitness walking (which can be performed indoors or out depending on terrain and climate variables).
One offering that may help to get sedentary seniors in your door is chair-seated exercise classes. Other forms of exercise that have gained favor among older adults in recent years include balance and stability training (sometimes referred to as fall prevention), circuit training (which can feature aerobics, muscle strengthening, or a combination of exercise modes), and senior-specific strength training.
The range of viable activity possibilities is broad. Develop programming consistent with the physical attributes of your location, your faculty's areas of expertise, and your clients' needs and preferences.
Use the Right Stuff
Successful aerobic conditioning can be conducted without the use of any equipment, and effective strength training can be achieved using inexpensive exercise accessories, such as dumbbells and resistance bands. Facilities with the budgets and space to do so may also elect to provide strength machines or endurance equipment like treadmills, steppers, and stationary cycles. The following excerpts from American Senior Fitness Association publications, reprinted by permission, provide some considerations for choosing machinery well-suited for use by senior clients:
Equipment selection should take into account space constraints, weight limits on the workout floor, and the number of participants exercising at the same time. Too many machines crowded together can result in an increased risk for stumbling or falling.
Exercise stations for seniors must safely and comfortably accommodate persons of different sizes and heights. Therefore, all of your exercise machines need to be fully adjustable to body size. Be wary of extremely low-priced products. They may be lightweight models that will wear out quickly given heavy use.
Regarding endurance equipment for seniors, timers are useful for preventing over-exertion. Immediate access to large, clearly visible stop buttons on motorized equipment must be available to both trainer and participant. Recumbent versions of certain aerobic machines are ideal for many seniors.
Guard rails may be needed for equipment on which clients must stand. Convenient, easy-to-secure safety belts and harnesses often prove indispensable to clients with balance problems. Equipment with turbines and fly wheels should have protective guards to prevent fingers, hands, or feet from getting caught.
Regarding strength training for seniors, it is essential to start low and go slow. Strength equipment should permit the client to start out with minimal resistance and increase it by small increments of 2.5 pounds or less. Variable-resistance machines will adjust intensity according to the degree of muscle contraction, providing optimal resistance throughout the movement.
Certain strength machines are liable to compel a senior exerciser to work beyond his or her safe range of motion. This may apply to participants with arthritis or other joint problems, so they need close supervision by the trainer. Some equipment products can be adjusted so that a subject's range can be limited and controlled as needed.
A resistance training program with strength machines might utilize the following equipment:
Additionally, strength equipment targeting the forearms may be used. While beneficial for many seniors, a few stations (for example, neck or lower back machines) may be inadvisable for others. Obtain medical clearance specific to the particular piece of equipment when any doubt exists as to an individual's potential tolerance or response to the type of training involved.
Create a Safe, Inviting Environment
In planning for senior fitness, you need to take stock of your facility's amenities and policies. Below are several factors that are involved in establishing and maintaining a proper senior exercise setting.
A senior-friendly facility is clean and permits easy access to entrances and exits, as well as to restrooms and drinking water sources. Indoor temperature and humidity levels are regulated. The floor surface minimizes exercise impact on the joints and any risk of tripping (for example, a wood floor with air space beneath is good for aerobic dance activity; cement or thick carpeting is risky). Lighting and room layout mitigate age-related declines in vision and balance. Acoustics and sound levels optimize hearing, and music selections reflect clients' tastes.
Procedurally, an operative emergency plan must be in place, and signed medical releases must be obtained from senior participants' physicians. In addition to standard forms prepared by the facility's legal counsel, each client should complete a lifestyle and health history questionnaire and take part in an interview process to formulate an individualized fitness plan. New clients should undergo an initial functional fitness appraisal (for purposes of goal setting and program design), which should be repeated periodically to track progress and ensure ongoing benefits.
Employ Appropriate Program Facilitators
A physical activity leader must take these steps to ensure a proper exercise session for older adults:
Senior fitness leaders should be certified in both adult CPR and basic first aid. Older adult fitness participants have an elevated risk for bone fracture, hard-to-control bleeding, diabetic emergency, heat injury, and other mishaps that may occur during training. First aid proficiency is mandated by national and international senior fitness professional curriculum guidelines. It should be required by employers for these reasons, as well as for liability considerations.
Among other areas of specialized study, physical activity leaders of older adults should complete training that addresses:
Provide Something Special
Receiving a little something extra can mean a lot to current and potential fitness clients, and supplying it will distinguish your program from others. Providing clients with the royal treatment, comfortable social opportunities, and intellectual stimulation, including health education, helps promote exercise adherence. Make it rewarding and interesting to keep your patrons coming back. Here are several ideas to improve the experience for the aging exerciser:
Remember, you need to keep your senior fitness program safe, effective, and engaging to be the best!