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Fitness and Recreational Suggestions for Older Adults

Sep 30, 2021 ● By Dominic Calabrese
A senior man and woman doing yoga

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

Despite the recent re-emergence of COVID-19 through new variants, older adults, a demographic most impacted by the virus, have numerous options available to stay fit and keep active as we head into the winter months. “After several months of lockdowns, restrictions and isolation, it is only natural that more Americans, particularly older adults, are eager to resume some type of physical and recreational activity,” says Christie Downing, a physical therapist with AMITA Health Rehabilitation Hospital Elk Grove Village, in partnership with Shirley Ryan Ability Lab

“The key, of course, is for them to do so safely and in moderation.”

According to Downing, the best way for older adults to regain fitness while maintaining their independence and avoiding potential health problems is to engage in moderate exercise, including aerobic activity and muscle strengthening. She points out that physical activity guidelines for Americans outlined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend a regimen of moderate exercise for at least 30 minutes five days a week, plus muscle-strengthening activities for two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups.

Downing adds that fewer than a third of all Americans ages 65 and over meet these recommendations. “There are, however, many proven programs that can help keep older adults active,” she notes, citing as an example, the National Council on Aging Center for Healthy Aging, which connects community organizations to proven programs that empower older adults to engage in regular exercise.

Another activity recommended by Downing to assist older adults aiming to regain fitness is tai chi, an ancient Chinese discipline originally developed for self-defense that has evolved into a graceful form of exercise for stress reduction and other health conditions. She observes that a version of tai chi intended for arthritis and fall prevention is designed to improve movement, balance and relaxation, while decreasing pain and the likelihood of falls.

Downing points out that both exercise and tai chi classes are currently up and running again at AMITA Health locations in the Chicago area. Tai chi is also offered at select YMCA of Metro Chicago locations where there is demand in the city and suburbs. “We love our seniors and are so happy to welcome them back,” says spokesperson Man-Yee Lee. She emphasizes that safety and cleanliness are paramount at all the YMCAs, with disinfectant wipes placed around the gym and workout equipment for members to use. “We want to assure older adults, and all our patrons for that matter, that they can come and work out and socialize in a healthy and friendly environment.”

In addition to tai chi, other popular offerings at the YMCA for older adults seeking to become active again are swimming, water aerobics and yoga. “Every activity we offer is designed to develop and maintain strong minds, as well as healthy bodies,” she observes.

Another big plus for older adults using the Y is the opportunity to socialize. “Coming out of the pandemic and the awful feelings of isolation it brought on, we appreciate that seniors will especially welcome the chance to mingle, network and come together to talk and share experiences,” says Lee.

Also meeting the needs of seniors is the Center on Halsted, located in Chicago’s Lakeview area. “To promote overall good health and fitness, we offer a holistic wellness model of social, recreational, physical and emotional programming,” says Britta Larson, senior services director. The center, which serves more than 500 seniors annually, is the most comprehensive facility in the Midwest securing the health and well-being of the LGBTQ community.

Larson states that two major recreational activities her facility uses to engage older adults are yoga classes and Bingocize, a 10-week online program that combines bingo with stretching and other exercises, as well as health education. “The goals of the program are to help our clients improve and/or maintain their mobility, balance and independence, learn about good health and socialize with one another,” she points out. Larson observes that Bingocize provided a welcome tonic to many clients that felt isolated during the pandemic. “It was so successful that we hope to bring it back this fall,” she says.

Some older adults may opt to employ the services of personal trainers that can develop specific workout routines geared to their individual circumstances and goals. One certified Chicago area trainer who interacts with seniors is Bob Kim, who holds a master’s degree in exercise science and cardiac rehabilitation. Most recently, Kim taught a Seniors in Motion program at The Chicago Lighthouse, an area nonprofit serving the blind, disabled and veteran communities.

“Probably the easiest workout for many older adults who have been inactive in recent months is to get out and walk,” Kim says, adding that the movements will be good for their entire body. “They don’t have to set a specific time limit, just follow their own comfort level,” he notes. Although he advises that for starters, older adults may want to set a simple goal of walking for two minutes a day, then adding a minute and then another as their area of comfort rises. “Swimming or doing something like water aerobics would also be a safe and healthy way for older adults to get back in the groove again,” Kim states, pointing out that any kind of water activity would be good for the entire body.

For older adults experiencing arthritis or other joint-related problems, he recommends that they spend time in therapeutic pools that are usually available at hospitals and other healthcare-related facilities. For those seniors wishing to exercise at home, Kim proposes working with a weighted hula hoop, which would be a safe and fun way to promote both balance and focus. He also suggests doing the chair squat, which entails sitting and standing up from a chair while trying not to use the arms to push the body up to a standing position. “Another option is using exercise bands to do some weight resistance,” Kim says, adding that the bands can be attached to any door for a variety of exercises.

“Older adults may also consider purchasing cardio equipment like a treadmill or exercise bicycle, and do cardio at home,” he advises.

Dominic Calabrese is an award-winning writer and public relations professional who serves as an adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago and the University of South Carolina.