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Copyright 1999,
American Senior Fitness
Association

 American Senior Fitness Association

 The experts in older adult fitness

 

Massachusetts Governor's Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports

SFA would like to thank the Massachusetts Governor's Committee on Physical Fitness and Sports for permission to reprint the following article.



Keeping Fit

A POSITIVE APPROACH TO THE AGING PROCESS

WAYNE L. WESTCOTT, Ph.D.

SFA National Advisory Board member, Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. is Fitness Director of the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.



Most of us speak negatively about getting older, but we usually agree that aging is better than the other alternative. Although the numbers can be discouraging, it is important to realize that our chronological age and our functional age can be very different. Working in the fitness profession for more than 30 years, and conducting thousands of fitness evaluations, I have come to the conclusion that one's functional ability may be only marginally related to one's age.

Generally speaking, I have tested 40 year olds who function more like 20 year olds, and others who function more like 60 year olds. That is, there seems to be a 20-year plus or minus effect associated with your level of physical fitness.

People sometimes ask me if this exercise factor holds true for older individuals. My answer is an emphatic yes. For example, there are 60 year olds who have the physical capacity of 40 year olds, and there are others whose physical performance resembles that of 80 year olds.

But what about people in their 80's and 90's? Certainly we don't expect such elderly individuals to exercise or remain physically active, do we? Perhaps we don't, but we definitely should. Consider the examples of my father, Warren Westcott, and my friend, George Conway, both of whom are in their 90's.

My father began Nautilus strength training eight years ago, when he was 82 years of age. At that time he was dangerously thin, weighing only 124 pounds at a height of 5'11".

He responded well to the progressive resistance exercise, gradually increasing both his muscle strength and body weight. At age 90, he presently weighs 146 pounds having added about 20 pounds of functional tissue (muscle and bone), and about two pounds of fat. His Nautilus exercise weightloads are so high that many people prefer not to follow him down the line of machines. For example, he completes leg presses with 190 pounds, chest-triceps presses with 160 pounds, and seated rows with 130 pounds. This overall muscular strength makes his daily tasks and lifestyle activities much easier to perform, and provides a high level of personal satisfaction. For example, he can enjoy his daily 20 minute walks or stationary cycling sessions, and he can manage a large house with little difficulty.

George Conway started exercising when he was 80 years of age, over 17 years ago. As George states, "Exercise adds life to your years and years to your life."

Like my father, George began his fitness program with Nautilus strength training. However, he also started walking, an activity in which he rapidly improved, and has excelled at various racewalking distances over the past several years. George has indeed become a competitive senior athlete, as well as a physical fitness enthusiast. Consider his world record racewalking performances, and you will see that he is every bit as deserving of his All-American rating as younger track athletes.

  • Age 86 3000 Meter Walk 24:40
  • Age 86 10000 Meter Walk 83:56
  • Age 87 10000 Meter Walk 82:44
  • Age 88 10000 Meter Walk 83:51
  • Age 88 One Hour Walk 6967 Meters
  • Age 90 10000 Meter Walk 89:55
  • Age 90 One Hour Walk 6797 Meters

In addition to his athletic accomplishments, George has been an inspiration to countless older adults in the state of Massachusetts. He is frequently featured as a speaker at senior centers and community events. Fortunately, George tells it like it is ...if you don't want to lose it then you have to use it!

While the above statement applies to almost every aspect of the aging process, it aptly describes our musculoskeletal system. Unless we do regular strength exercise, we lose over five pounds of muscle and significant amounts of bone mass every decade of adult life. This debilitating and insidious lifestyle response results in a progressively slower metabolism, and is associated with numerous degenerative problems and diseases such as low back pain, obesity, heart disease, adult diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

The good news is that muscle loss can be changed to muscle gain by following Warren and George's exercise examples. Even better, you don't have to wait until your 80's to experience the benefits of regular strength training.

For example, several studies with subjects over age 50 have shown more than three pounds of new muscle following three months of strength exercise. Research has also revealed associated benefits, including increased metabolic rate, more bone mass, lower blood pressure, better blood lipid profiles, greater glucose utilization, improved digestion/elimination, reduced low back pain, decreased arthritic discomfort and enhanced self-confidence.

Fortunately, a sensible and successful strength training program is not an energy sapping or time-consuming ordeal. Basically, you need to exercise only 20 to 30 minutes, two or three days a week to develop relatively high levels of musculoskeletal fitness. The basic training protocol is one set of a dozen Nautilus exercises, using a resistance that you can perform properly for 8 to 12 repetitions. It doesn't take a long time or excessive effort, but the results are nothing short of remarkable. Of course, if you prefer to train at home, you can achieve similar benefits by exercising with dumbbells or other types of resistance apparatus.