Feature Article - November 2012
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Fitness Gets Personal

Find Your Niche(s) and Stand Out

By Julie Knudson


As with other age groups, seniors can reap significant benefits from even moderate exercise. Sheldon Zinberg, MD, founder of the Garden Grove, Calif.-based fitness club Nifty after Fifty, said that seniors are one demographic group with "a proclivity toward developing specific areas of deconditioning," something that makes specialized attention a must.

"An individually customized physical fitness program is going to give them a greater bang for the buck," Zinberg explained. "One that identifies not only their overall level of fitness, but also identifies and remedially addresses their specific areas of deconditioning."

Seniors at Nifty after Fifty begin their first visit with a complete physical fitness evaluation. "That includes balance testing, risk-of-falling assessment, flexibility, strength testing of every major muscle group, percent of body fat, percent of lean muscle mass, all of those things," Zinberg said. From that profile, the team develops an individually customized fitness program for the client.

The equipment at Nifty after Fifty is also geared specifically to the senior crowd's needs and preferences. "For strength—to address weaknesses—we use pneumatic resistance equipment," Zinberg said. One reason they went that route was to keep the noise level down in the center (Zinberg explained that they much prefer a quiet environment). Another was their desire to minimize inertia, which can be a significant problem for older exercisers.

"When you go to get a weight stack in motion, there is some inertia and difficulty getting the weight stack in motion," Zinberg said. "Then when you return to the starting position, you have to deal with inertia again. At both of these points you are liable to increase intra-articular pressure, cause ligament and tendon damage, and discomfort." Using pneumatics ameliorates the effects of inertia, and Zinberg said he believes pneumatic resistance equipment is particularly suited for the senior population.

The City of Albuquerque has also zeroed in on the senior crowd with their 50+ Sports and Fitness Program that encompasses several senior-only fitness centers. The program is broken into four categories—strength training, sports, fitness and outdoor recreation—and each area has its own manager.

Participants begin with an orientation program designed to help them become comfortable with the environment as well as the equipment. They can even request multiple orientations if needed. "If they go through one orientation and they've forgotten how to use the chest press, they can always come back and ask," said program supervisor Karen Baker. "We always have staff here available to answer questions or show people how to do things again."

Cost can sometimes be a barrier for seniors, and it's something the City of Albuquerque's Department of Senior Affairs has taken steps to overcome. "We only charge $13 a year for our memberships," said health and wellness specialist Dominic Saavedra, "and that membership includes all of the senior centers as well as the fitness centers as long as you're 50 and over."

That's a welcome fact for low-income seniors as well as those whose income is fixed. If the annual membership is still out of reach, individual workouts can be had for just 50 cents, but even that has some wiggle room. "If you can't afford it, you don't have to pay that amount," Saavedra said. "It's on a donation basis."

And rather than sticking to a handful of traditional activities, Baker said the wide variety of senior-focused offerings supported by the city has given older folks a way to have fun while also getting some exercise. They have classes ranging from salsa dancing to aquatics, and they even run outdoor events such as snowshoeing and hiking.

The approach has reached an eager audience. After starting with one activity, Baker said the seniors "come in and they do something else, and then they do more, and they get in shape." Participants report feeling better while also widening their circle of friends. It's one reason Baker's team tries to offer as many different ways for seniors to get involved as possible. "They'll come in and improve their health, their social life, their emotional life—the whole gamut," she said.