June 29, 2010

USA: Never too old to get fit

SAVANNAH, Georgia / Savannah Morning News / Accent / June 29, 2010

By Dana Clark Felty

Betty, 85, and Bill Fish, 95, work out in a gym up to six days a week.

Gail Ewaldsen hears all kinds of excuses about why people aren't exercising.

Say "I'm too old," and Ewaldsen shakes her head and points to Betty and Bill Fish. "That's nothing. I've got a 95-year-old in here," said Ewaldsen, a certified personal trainer at the Islands YMCA.

Betty, 85, and Bill, 95, are among the oldest members of the Whitemarsh Island fitness club.

Bill and Betty Fish, 95 and 85, work out regularly.  (John Carrington/Savannah Morning News)

For the past eight years, the Talahi Island couple has spent four to six days a week working out there with weights, treadmills and stationary bikes. It's a sight that gives other members a boost, Ewaldsen said.

"Everyone knows them. Everyone is just in awe."

Betty says she and her husband are proof that you don't have to be a spandex-wearing muscle man or woman to enjoy a gym membership.

Physically, they're nothing exceptional, she said. Both retired decades ago, Bill from CSX Corporation and Betty from the U.S. Social Security Administration.

They've never been particularly athletic; just plain folks who like to stay active and enjoy life.

"Everyone tells us we're their inspiration," Betty said. "What we say to everyone is: 'We go today so we can come back tomorrow.' "

Gyms and seniors

The Fishes aren't the only older adults going to the gym these days. Seniors have become the fastest growing segment of the health club population, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Memberships among those ages 55 and older increased from 1.5 million in 1987 to 8.5 million in 2006.

The Islands Y put Ewaldsen in charge of senior adult programs in 2002. She leads fitness classes twice a week that focus on balance, flexibility and strengthening muscles.  She now works with about 20 to 30 participants per session. Two, not including Bill Fish, are in their early 90s. Another is turning 90 in a month.

"Some of them have a lot of health problems. Some of them have none," Ewaldsen said. "We're just trying to improve quality of life."

When a new senior joins the class, staff survey their goals and physical limitations to come up with a recommended workout routine, including weights and cardiovascular exercises. Each member is encouraged to start slow and gradually step up the challenges. For some, the goal is just to touch their toes or be able to get up off the floor.

In the nine years that Ewaldsen has led the classes, only two participants have lost their balance and needed an ambulance.

"There are things everyone can do," she said. "You just have to work around the weak parts."

More good years

Older adults can benefit from regular physical activity, even if basic activities such as walking or climbing stairs are difficult, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the last eight years, Bill has fallen several times at home. After completing physical therapy recommended by his doctor, he insisted on going back to the gym to speed his recovery.

"He's the type who wants to do more. More is always better," Betty said.

With Betty as his spotter, Bill rotates between five weight machines, working muscles in his legs, arms and back. Betty also uses the weights, and the two of them will take turns on the treadmill. The recumbent bicycle is Bill's favorite activity.

"Some days, he's not able to do more than 10 minutes," she said. "Other days, he can pedal for 25 minutes."

Bill still struggles with balance. He is legally blind and has nerve damage on the right side of his body. But the workouts have helped him recover from his some of his falls, Betty said. He can still get around using a walker, allowing the couple to continue doing things they enjoy, such as attending Lyons Club meetings, going out to eat and worshipping at First Baptist Church of the Islands.

"I think it's kept us active and on the go," Betty said.

Workouts for Seniors

If you're 65 years of age or older, are generally fit, and have no limiting health conditions, you can follow these weekly guidelines:

Option 1: Two-and-a-half hours of brisk walking and two or more sessions of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups.

Option 2: 75 minutes of jogging or running and two or more sessions of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups.

Option 3: An equivalent mix of walking and jogging and two or more sessions of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups.

More time equals more health benefits. People with heart disease, arthritis, or diabetes should talk with their doctor about the physical activities that are right for them.

Source: Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity; National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion

©2010.Savannah Morning News