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Guest Column - September 2009

Fitness & Exercise

Effective Fitness Programs for Aging Boomers

By Judy Greer


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aby boomers, now reaching the age of retirement, are eager to find ways to stave off aging as they try to be active grandparents and maintain their independence. Clubs that offer effective exercise for this age group can greatly impact the health and wellness of these members and also attract new members. One of the most important characteristics of effective exercise for this age group is that it should promote and maintain functional fitness—the combination of strength, balance and conditioning that preserves one's ability to live independently.

But often exercisers of this age are set in their routines and hesitant to try something new. Carol Penfield, a nurse practitioner and former triathlete who now owns Chatham Health and Swim Club in Chatham, Mass., decided to test an exercise program for active aging adults to see if a new sport—rowing—could both motivate members and improve their health.

At Chatham, roughly 80 percent of members are over age 60. Penfield noticed that not many people were using the club's indoor rower. From her own experience and training, she felt that rowing would be a great choice of exercise for her members, but she needed to figure out what the barriers were, and how to help her members overcome those barriers. So she decided to create a rowing class for over-60 exercisers and study its effectiveness. Even Penfield was surprised by the enthusiastic turnout, the perfect attendance of the participants and the strength of the results.

Penfield tested 34 participants in standardized senior fitness tests before and after a six-week series of 30-minute group rowing classes. All 34 older adults who participated in the study showed 20 percent to 34 percent improvements on a series of strength and flexibility tests that measure functional movements such as stair climbing, walking and mobility. Fitness gains such as these can make a considerable difference in an older person's quality of life. Penfield noted that "the ability to sit, stand, walk and maintain agility determines a person's ability to live independently and avoid common injuries from falls."

Unlike other exercises, rowing is unique in that it is performed in a seated position—allowing strengthening of the legs and core without weight-bearing strain to the joints. Rowing uses all the major muscle groups, and provides aerobic and anaerobic conditioning with a smooth, rhythmic, impact-free motion.

Each group rowing class included a warm-up and cool-down period, a 5-minute rowing technique segment and two 3-minute periods of rowing with alternating periods of stretching and strengthening. A 4-minute row for distance was compared week-to-week. Sixty-eight percent of participants had no prior rowing experience, and many did not consider themselves exercisers when the study began.

Penfield uncovered many of the participants' misconceptions about rowing—mainly, that rowing could hurt their knees or back. Study participants were surprised and excited to learn that rowing could improve their physical endurance and leg strength without causing or aggravating knee or back pain. "My knees don't allow me to do some activities anymore," said Jay T., "but rowing didn't seem to bother them at all." Sue C. agreed, "I used to have problems with my back, but rowing has made it stronger without pain." All participants reported that they could row comfortably.