Old age isn’t what it used to be.
“Our expectations have changed from dying at 75 to living well into our 90s and even to 100,” says Robin Robertson, a gym owner and trainer in Bellingham, Wash., who specializes in fitness for those 55 and older. “We could all use tips on how to make those years healthy and vibrant rather than burdensome.”
Between 1980 and 2010, the number of 100-year-olds increased 66 percent. Baby boomers are now ages 52 to 70. By 2029, more than 20 percent of Americans will be over 65.
It’s not how long we will live, but how well.
The key is maintaining functional fitness, says Dan Ritchie, who, in 2013, co-founded Functional Aging Institute, a business that teaches fitness professionals how to train mature clients. Functional fitness means movements that help you in everyday life. Think cross-body and full-body motions, bending or picking something up off the floor. The goal is to build a body capable of real-life activities.
“This has huge implications for older adults,” says Ritchie. “What do you need to do, want to do or dream of doing? You need to get groceries, empty a dishwasher, clean your house. You want to hike, cycle or play with grandchildren. Not everybody dreams of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro at 70, but whatever you dream of, it will require functional abilities.”
How to make your later years robust and independent?
Exercise. Find activities you love, and do them several times per week. Incorporate strength-training and cardio.
Low-impact activity is kind to joints and promotes longevity, says Robertson, a USA Cycling Coach and author of “Healthy & Fit Body.” “We can beef up our joints through muscle and ligament strengthening. Cycling does this without impact or lateral movement.”
Lose excess weight. An overweight woman who drops as little as 11 pounds reduces the chance of getting arthritis in her knees by 50 percent. Ten pounds of excess body weight delivers an extra 20 to 30 pounds of stress to your knees with every step.
Change your view of aging. Aging isn’t bad; it’s natural. Think of the positives, Ritchie says: You don’t do the stupid stuff you did when you were 25; you can enjoy grandchildren; and you can focus on what’s important to you, such as charities or volunteering.
Take responsibility. You control exercise, eating, stress, sleep. Is your trajectory of aging leading to frailty or independence?
It’s never too late to start, Ritchie says. “But that doesn’t mean you should wait! We can get you fit at 60, but if you’ve taken care of yourself from 50 to 60, it’s a whole lot easier.”
Ritchie tells this story:
“A 79-year-old came to us last year. He wanted to hike Son Doong Cave in Vietnam with his son-in-law and grandson. It’s one of the largest caves in the world, and you get to its entrance via a six-hour hike through virgin jungle. If you don’t do well on the jungle hike, tour operators don’t let you go into the cave. This 79-year-old was fit but lacked balance and coordination, so we helped him train to achieve it before the trip.
“When they arrived at the cave entrance, the 79-year-old did not go into the cave. But it wasn’t him; it was the lack of fitness in his 49-year-old son-in-law. The younger man had struggled with shortness of breath on the hike, and his father-in-law wouldn’t go in without him.
“It wasn’t age; it was functional capacity.”
Functional fitness supports life’s activities, including strength and balance. Instead of using a weight machine that works one motion in one plane, seek complex training movements that engage multiple joints, Robertson advises. Stay fit enough to get out of a chair without using the chair arms.
“If we don’t stay active, we lose muscle,” she says. “If we get weaker, we become vulnerable to injury. If we get injured, we lose motivation to do what we used to enjoy. Fear of falling is huge as we get older.”
Robertson regularly sees clients use diet and exercise to reduce or eliminate medication for diabetes or high blood pressure, and employ strength training to avoid or delay knee or hip replacement.
Others improve quality of life. Husband and wife Mike Addison, 72, and Marcela Berg, 79, who moved to Bellingham in 2014, built a no-ledge shower in their home because they anticipated future entry via wheelchair. At that time, Marcela wouldn’t shower without Mike in the room, in case she fell. She expected leg strength and balance to lessen further as she aged. “I thought I’d be on a slow downhill slide. But it didn’t happen that way, because I joined this gym! Now I walk to the bathroom and take a shower by myself.”
Marcela used to clutch Mike’s arm as she shuffled into the gym. After nine months of functional training, she regained the ability to walk confidently alone. She can do squats, and lift both arms straight overhead, abilities that had deteriorated. Marcela says frequent social events at this facility add an emotional lift. “All of it comes together to maintain quality of life.”
Mike credits the success of his 2015 knee replacement to exercise. Now post-surgery, he can perform deep squats and walk 5 miles without fatigue. At one point, he and a similar-age friend were loading wood. “He couldn’t lift it, but I lifted the wood, no problem. And he’s bigger than I am! That encourages me to continue exercising.”
The number of Americans 62 and older is growing, with most of the increase expected by 2030. Plus, Americans ages 62-plus have a net worth 40 percent higher than that age group did 25 years ago. “There’s a gigantic need for fitness,” Ritchie says. “They don’t want to get old and wait to die. They want to go on adventures, live life to the fullest. And they can afford to – if they have the functional capacity. That’s key.”