By Maura Ammenheuser, The Tennessean
Katie White has had three open-heart surgeries and eight angioplasties and wears a pacemaker.
have to exercise to stay alive," says White, 80, who walks and takes a
strength-training class at The Heritage, the Brentwood assisted-living
facility where she lives. "Walking is great," she said. "I'm borderline
diabetic. I take no medication for diabetes. I do it with diet and
White admitted, though, that "in the winter, I don't
like to walk a lot outside. If you're a cardiac patient, you don't want
to get too chilled."
Regular physical activity is crucial to senior citizens' health. But winter is a long, cold, intimidating obstacle to exercise.
is by far the best way for seniors to stay in shape," said Scott
Russell, a fitness instructor at Del Webb Lake Providence in Mt. Juliet,
a community for active seniors. "But in inclement weather, they better
do it indoors. ... Extremely cold weather is very dangerous to seniors."
elderly feel the cold more sharply than they used to. After age 65,
thirst signals deteriorate, said Liz Long, fitness manager at The
Heritage. She builds water breaks into the exercise classes she leads
"A lot of (seniors) have arthritis and joint issues, and
that's more painful in winter," said Brooke Brandon, director of the
Middle Tennessee YMCA's Silver Sneakers program, aimed mostly at those
ages 65 and older.
The biggest problem: Seniors' balance can be
off, making the prospect of a stroll along potentially icy or muddy
Fear of falling is "always a concern for
everybody out here," because "if you fall, you're going to break
something," said Heritage resident Gay Simmons, 82, who with her
husband, Lamar, also 82, recently began taking Long's balance and
Bones lose density with age and become brittle.
there's a fracture, it can lead to a total decline in health," said
Karen Dyer, program coordinator and exercise specialist at Vanderbilt's
Dayani Center for Health and Wellness.
Pain or poor balance can
scare seniors off physical activity, Long said. They say, "How can I
exercise if I can't walk a straight line?" Her classes combat those
problems, emphasizing strength, stretching and balance, including one
class combining yoga with chairs.
"We have two (residents) who
were using canes or walkers, and we've seen a dramatic improvement,"
Long said. "They're able to stand without it, or cross the room without
Classes build strength, balance, camaraderie
Senior communities recognize the need for indoor fitness, especially
in winter. Many offer classes for those in their golden years, getting
creative about equipment and activities.
Heritage residents know
that five and a half laps around interior hallways equals a one-mile
walk. Several facilities use chairs as fitness tools, because exercises
can be done sitting, and gripping the chair helps clients steady
Del Webb's fitness center includes an indoor pool and classes ranging from Zumba to tai chi.
Y's classes for seniors include yoga, Zumba Gold ("a slower Zumba,"
Brandon said) and circuit training. Water aerobics are popular with
seniors, because water eases stress on joints. Pools are heated.
is another fan of chairs as props for toe raises, leg lifts and squats.
Repeatedly rising from the chair strengthens the quadricep (thigh)
muscles. Dyer said seniors are especially vulnerable to falls when
rising from a chair, because their legs have weakened, their balance is
off and their blood pressure might drop upon standing suddenly.
Practicing in class builds clients' strength and balance.
recommends unorthodox, inexpensive tools for exercising at home. Chunky
Soup cans are "big and wide and easy to hold" with arthritic hands, she
said. They weigh less than 1 pound, good for low-weight, high-repetition
moves such as bicep curls.
Seniors might also enjoy working with
resistance bands, available at Target and other retailers. Dyer also
teaches equipment-free moves, such as walking fingers up and down a
wall, to loosen arthritic shoulders.
Norman Lerner teaches tai chi at Del Webb. At 86, he's 20 years older than some of his balance-compromised clients.
"In tai chi, you can never do anything too slowly," he said.
Often called "meditation in motion," tai chi is a slow-motion, non-impact martial art, which reduces the risk of wobbling off balance or injuring creaky joints.
is very relaxed," Lerner said. "You don't think you're exercising the
body. But you are building up strength." Golfers tell him, "It's
improving my swing!"
Indoor exercise classes are ideal for keeping
the elderly fit, warm and safe in the dead of winter. The social aspect
helps buoy moods, too.
But those without easy access to such
programs need help. Fitness instructors urge families to drive older
relatives to exercise classes and do fitness DVDs geared to seniors with
them at home. Personal trainers also can design safe exercise regimens
to follow alone at home.
A little encouragement helps, Brandon
said. Call older relatives, asking, "Have you done your DVD today?" she
suggested. "Have you walked around the house?"
Seniors should find
somebody else to walk their dogs on icy days, Dyer said, so the leash
won't trip them and the dog can't pull them across slick spots. Seniors
lose some tactile senses and may begin literally dragging their feet, a
tripping hazard, Dyer cautioned. If a relative walks this way, suggest a
gait assessment by a doctor.
White, meanwhile, urges peers to overcome all-too-common midwinter inertia for their own good.
if you're alone in your apartment, you don't feel like exercising,"
White said. "With a class, you don't linger in the bed. And the longer
you linger in the bed, the longer you feel you need to linger in the