Guest Column - July/August 2003
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Group Programming for Older Adults

A successful, inexpensive approach

By Ruth Bohlken and Michael E. Rogers, Ph.D.


It's no surprise that Baby Boomers are one of the most important growth markets for recreation facilities and health clubs, with 75 million people in the United States over the age of 50. Companies of all types are trying to figure out how to market to this consumer goldmine, and it is safe to say community centers and health clubs are looking at ways to cater to this group as well.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a report in 2001 attributing frail health associated with aging to inactivity. Many local initiatives have since been launched by universities, churches, charities, health clubs and other non-government organizations to engage older adults in exercise and life-enhancing programs. The challenge is to find a program that involves older adults in a variety of physical activities and is enjoyable for the participants while being inexpensive to implement.

The Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., was established in 1996 by Dr. Nancy Stubbs for the purpose of expanding education-based, community-based and research-based activities that involve older adults. Classes offered at the center assist older adults in maintaining a high quality of life through the establishment of lifetime exercise programs. When the classes first began, there were 10 participants. Now classes are offered year round and currently serve more than 150 adults between the ages of 60 and 95. The physical activity classes the center offers often are a test-bed for new programming specific to older adults.

One such new program being tested is Therarobics (physiotherapy-based aerobics). It is a low-impact group cardio-fitness class that incorporates resistance training into every move. It was developed in Europe by a group of physiotherapists and sports trainers as a general fitness class and was later adapted for older adults. Exercises were combined with functional movement patterns that target four core areas of fitness corresponding to the American College of Sports Medicine recommendations: cardiovascular, muscle strength and endurance, balance and stability, and flexibility and range of motion. All movements are choreographed to low-tempo music: about 90 beats a minute.

What makes this program truly unique is that its developers incorporated inexpensive exercise equipment into the program—elastic resistance bands and tubing—which add resistance to the basic movements. The bands and tubing also allow for resistance progression as strength and endurance improve.

The band and tubing kit provides each participant with elastic exercise tubing that attaches to the ankles and is also connected to a band that wraps around their hands. The 30-minute to one-hour class focuses on movements that build upper and lower body and core strength, improves balance and coordination, and elevates the heart rate. Core movement patterns include twisting, pulling, lunging, bending, squatting, pushing and reaching. These patterns can be made progressively more difficult by increasing band and tubing resistance. They also can be adapted for specific populations, like a program for adults with chronic low-back pain. The names of specific movements—"serving," "open the door," "sliding doors" and "saying hello"—correlate directly to activities of daily living, making them memorable as well as functional.

The program integrates balance and intrinsic muscular stability during the exertion of muscular force. Rather than isolating muscles like weight machines, it recruits multiple muscles that accelerate, decelerate and stabilize each movement.

The beauty of the program is that it is substantiated by research, inexpensive and sociable. The resistance exercise bands and tubing provide a means of measuring and seeing progress as well as make the program easily adaptable to the audience. With knowledge of movement and pathology, an instructor can make modifications in accordance with the fitness level of the class.

Research on older adults and their afflictions illustrates that targeted resistance exercise programs can be the solution to many ailments. Resistance exercise can help delay the onset of symptoms of heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Specific exercise programs also can improve balance, prevent falls and relieve pain.

Balance training and fall prevention is very important to those working with older adults. About one-third of adults over 65 will fall in any given year, and about two-thirds of those who do will injure themselves, thousands fatally.

New research conducted by Robert Topp at the University of Louisville School of Nursing also has shown that resistance exercise relieves the pain of osteoarthritis of the knee better than over-the-counter pain relievers without the unwanted side effects. Osteoarthritis affects more than 20 million Americans. Other research has shown that resistance exercise helps prevent and manage many chronic diseases such as diabetes and osteoporosis.

The activity programs at Wichita State are successful because they meet the specific needs of an older adult population. When starting a resistance exercise program like Therarobics, or any activity program for older adults, keep the program low in costs and high in fun for participants. Older adults enjoy social programs. Also remember that other factors affect success like facility accessibility, class time, equipment availability and staff qualifications. But above all, the participants must enjoy the activities to reap the benefits.

Ruth Bohlken is director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University in Wichita, Kan., and Michael E. Rogers, PhD, is an associate professor at the Department of Kinesiology and Sport Studies as well as research director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.

To learn more about programming for older adults through Wichita State's Center for Physical Activity and Aging, visit You can also check out the new Therarobics program at the International Conference on Therapeutic Exercise in San Diego on Aug. 15 and 16. For more information about the conference and to sign up online, visit