Miriam Schottland, 79, can bench press 90 pounds, putting women half her age – including the one writing this story – to shame.
It wasn’t always this way. Although Schottland, an auto racing instructor, has been hitting the gym for nearly 30 years, she credits her weightlifting skills to her personal trainer at Fit, a gym in Washington that offers personal training specifically for senior citizens.
“The guys in the gym are so jealous,” Schottland said. “I ain’t no spring chicken no more, so I have trouble with my foot from time to time. But I don’t let it stop me, and the trainers don’t let you give up, anyway.”
Even for people as fit as Schottland, trainers must take into account that with age comes diminished endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. That doesn’t mean that older adults must resign themselves to easy routines. Trainers just need to do thorough assessments, checking for injuries, joint weakness and other limitations, said Michael Everts, Fit’s owner.
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“A lot of times I use low-intensity agility drills that incorporate elements of flexibility, coordination, balance and core engagement to test ability,” he said.
Then Everts likes to ratchet up the intensity. He may start out with simple exercises such as knee walks, where you grab one knee at a time while walking across the room. This, he said, is a good way to strengthen joints and improve agility. Once Evert has a sense of a client’s fitness level, he’ll take it up a notch with something like multidirectional lunges.
Some of the common ailments Everts encounters with his clients are arthritis, lower back pain and overall joint pain.
“You have to be mindful of those sorts of challenges, but clients can often accomplish a lot with simple exercises with limited movement,” he said. “You can build up enough strength to eventually perform more progressive moves.”
Health experts recommend that older adults incorporate strength training into their fitness routine. The addition of even a light set of weights can enhance bone density, decrease insulin resistance, affect metabolism and result in better sleep, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Regular exercise not only slows the loss of muscle mass and strengthens bones, but it could also help speed up recovery from surgery, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.
After undergoing hip replacement surgery, Schottland said she was able to bounce back quickly.
“Normally they keep you in the hospital for about two weeks for rehab, but they sent me home within a day and a half because I was in such good shape,” she said.
Take a brisk walk
Schottland got serious about working out at 51, after her doctor warned her about the risks of remaining sedentary.
She recalls him asking: Do you want to reach the end of your life like your mother?
“By the time my mom was 60, she had to lug an oxygen bottle around. By the time she was 70 she was a total invalid because she never exercised and didn’t eat well.”
Even 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, such as a brisk walk, provides health benefits for older adults, according to the orthopedic association.
Build functional strength
A lot of the routines that Ellen Yates of N2Shape in Tysons Corner, Va., creates for her older clients involve exercises that mimic everyday activities, such as getting in and out of a chair, to build functional strength. She focuses on core exercises to improve balance and mobility, which helps reduce the risk of falling or other serious injuries.
“A lot of seniors think getting older means completely slowing down, but age is just a number. And staying active is a necessity,” Yates said.