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Study Shows Fitness Enhances Seniors' Lives
by René Burton, Therapeutic Fitness Specialist

Seniors, despite age and even major medical conditions, can significantly improve their quality of life through a well-designed exercise program tailored to each participant’s potential. I watched it happen from week to week in my ten Emeritus-sponsored fitness classes in Orange County. But I decided to verify my observations by developing a study that would measure more precisely how my students progressed over time. This study began in October 2004 and was completed in March 2005.

The study divided fitness into five components ? balance, flexibility, mobility/agility, strength and aerobics – and rated results on a scale of 1 to 3: 1 = can’t accomplish or is a consistent problem, 2 = can accomplish some times and 3 = able to do on a more consistent basis. The students’ performance after three and six months was compared to their starting point. The study (see table) consistently confirmed my observations. When my students started in the program, more than a quarter – 45 out of 162 – had a hard time doing everyday things like reaching, bending, lifting or walking or moving around obstacles. It all added up to a lower quality of life.

Within three months, all but five of the study subjects had advanced to higher levels of performance, and within six months, every one of them had moved up (see charts). In addition to the five basic components of fitness, the study measured body mass index (BMI) and perceived mental attitude. After six months participants lowered their BMI by an overall average that was the equivalent of a seven-pound weight loss for the average person (see table). All of them also reported improvement in their mental attitude at six months (see charts).

Many of my students, who range in age from 55 to 93, have diseases ranging from arthritis, high blood pressure, and adult onset diabetes to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s, but they progressed in all the components as well. Every participant filled out a questionnaire covering the five basic criteria, as well as BMI and mental attitude – at start and after three and six months. While examining the self-assessments, I adjusted a few estimates up or down, depending on whether I thought the subjects were too generous or too hard in assessing their progress. But those adjustments were exceptions to the rule.

The overwhelming percentage of my students gave realistic appraisals of where they were when they started and how they progressed. My It’s Never Too Late fitness regime – developed through 22 years of experience, 15 of which have been devoted to working with seniors, does not take a cookie cutter approach. As my students go through their routines, I remind them – collectively and individually, that they are not in a competition, but encourage them to keep pushing toward their potential.

My mantra is “Do the best you can do.” My comprehensive program which is based on my dance training incorporates: • Yoga • Dance Movement • Pilates • Resistance Exercises • Low Impact Aerobics • Flexibility and Stretching All these techniques are geared to improve overall posture, increase positive body image, elevate self-esteem, increase circulation, relieve stress, increase flexibility, and improve balance and agility (to help prevent falls, which are a high risk for frail seniors).

Specific exercises also help alleviate chronic pain such as arthritis, improve range of motion, maintain bone strength, and alleviate fatigue and depression. The entire exercise program helps lower BMI.

My program consists of all the components necessary to maintain optimum health and fitness. Specifically: 1. Low impact weight bearing aerobics – to improve cardiovascular fitness and endurance 2. Strength training – using free weights and resistance bands – to build muscle and bone strength. 3. Stretch and flexibility exercises suited to the needs of the individual student – for coordination, relieving stress and improving posture. 4. Nutritional information and discussion.

All parts of program are accompanied by music which supports the activity involved. The only materials necessary are resistance bands, weights, and a yoga mat for the floor routines. This program is beneficial for all seniors as well as those suffering from any chronic illness such as: chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, etc.

All the components are used in all my classes, but they are not all taught with the same intensity. Every class is specifically adapted to the level of ability of its students. As you can see from the study, they all progressed and showed significant improvement regardless of age. The statistics from my study speak for themselves, but here is what my students think about their progress.

This is just a small sampling of the over 100 students who commented about what they have achieved in the program.

Illona, 66 – High blood pressure “I am more limber now than I was in my younger years. I have more energy and I am more mentally alert, and I found a new confidence. My arthritis pain is also less noticeable. I have been able to cut down on my blood pressure medication.”

Mona, 66 – Triple heart by-pass surgery – 3 years ago “Physically – healthier, stronger, more flexible, better stamina, lesser pain in joints and muscles after workout. Mentally – better memory, feel better about myself. More patience, slightly improved weight control. More positive in relating with family & friends. Love my workout and look forward to my exercise sessions.

Donna, 73 – Rheumatoid arthritis “More stamina in gardening can reach and bend more easily. More strength. Easier to carry groceries, vacuum, go up and down stairs. Do not tire as easily. Can walk farther before resting. Balance is better but need more work. More energy after class. Do not feel like a couch potato. Look forward to coming to class.”

Nancy, 77 – Depression “I have been in the class a little less than a year. My strength and coordination have greatly improved. Best of all, the exercise and socializing have helped me out of depression.”

Jim, 64 - Parkinson’s “Better flexibility and balance. Enjoy social interaction with others. Provides relief from the stress which is important for my Parkinson’s disease.”

I have three medical doctors in my classes. Here’s what they say:

Dr. Raafat Wassef – General Surgeon - ER doctor at Victorville Desert Valley Medical Center Endorses this program. Attends class twice a week, runs every day. Always promoted exercise to all his patients. “Exercise, especially the way René presents her program, helps digestion, helps the cardio vascular system, promotes muscle tone, is a mood elevator, creates a sensation of well being. It is preventative medicine. Promotes a spiritual feeling towards others, creates interaction and socialization which helps seniors live a more fulfilling life.”

Dr. Adel Nashed OB-GYN – 24 years with Signa Health Care Attends class twice a week. Had open heart surgery in 1993 – Quit smoking and started exercising. “I have achieved greater flexibility, lost weight, BMI has decreased, feel healthier and have more energy. Enjoy life more since I began this exercise program. I endorse René’s program for all seniors.”

Dr. Laila Wassef Communicable Diseases Los Angeles County Monrovia Health Center “I heartily endorse René’s program. I have been attending twice a week for the past six months and my posture and endurance has greatly improved. I encourage all seniors to exercise to improve their balance, flexibility, mental attitude so that they can enjoy the best part of their lives. Exercise is the best medicine”.

In the Emeritus Program, at Irvine Valley College, Director Dave Anderson, Jr. said: “I am very excited about the study’s implications. It proves the need for more programs like René’s. It essentially substantiates everything that the Emeritus program is doing”. While the study’s findings are very encouraging, fitness for seniors still has a long way to go. Less than a third of seniors exercise regularly, and a much smaller percentage – as few as 15 percent, according to some estimates – participates in comprehensive fitness programs like those offered through the Emeritus program.

We are reaching those with the best attitude and are the most motivated. We have to expand and create age-tailored fitness programs (like my program It’s Never Too Late) that can serve a much larger universe of seniors and then aggressively market those programs to those seniors who are seeing their quality of life slip away year by year. How can that be done? A big, mostly untapped resource is physicians – the group with whom many seniors have their most frequent contact. Local medical associations should be enlisted to develop education initiatives through their physician members to encourage their senior patients to join certified fitness programs tailored specifically to their needs.

The associations could endorse those programs that meet standards and are a proven success, like It’s Never Too Late.

René Burton, a Fifty Plus Fitness Ambassador, is a credentialed Adaptive Physical Education teacher and has studied exercise physiology at California State University, Fullerton.. Early in her career, she studied at the Martha Graham Dance Studio, and The New Dance Group in New York City. She has given lectures and workshops at Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente Medical Group. Currently she is teaching fitness for seniors under the state Emeritus program at Irvine Valley College, Coastline Community College and the Huntington Beach Adult School.


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