Exercise: Not Just for Kids

As you age, moving your body is vital

Exercise: Not Just for Kids

As you age, moving your body is vital

Older people are exercising in tremendous numbers, but in different ways today than in the aerobics revolution of the 1970s and ’80s. An article in the September 2023 issue of AARP Magazine stated: “Fitness has been transferred by a generation—or two—that refuses to accept the idea that exercise is just for kids.” 

Older adults are now playing organized sports in record numbers. As recently as last summer, more than 10,000 athletes aged 50 to 100 competed in the National Senior Games in Pittsburgh, up fivefold since 1987. U.S. Masters Swimming has grown 46% since 2008. The number of runners in their 70s registering for U.S. races grew by 32% from 2019 to 2022, according to AARP. Those older than 50 are competing at high levels in marathons, triathlons and other endurance sports much later in life than previously.

America’s fastest-growing sport is pickleball, and the largest group of frequent players (49%) is age 55 and older, says the Sports & Industry Association. This trend of older people being more involved in sports will only continue to grow, says fitness expert Pamela Peek, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Pickleball was created by three dads back in 1965 as a game for the whole family, but it has lately “exploded across the country,” says Sue Hlavacek, president and CEO of the National Senior Games Association. 

I encourage pickleball for individuals, and even competitive play, at all ages and fitness levels. This sport appeals to seniors and younger exercisers alike because it’s simple to learn, gets you moving and is relatively easy on older bodies. And it’s a social game that keeps participants cognitively engaged—making it a perfect pastime to learn as you age.

Peek observes that people over age 50 become adventurous. She says, “They experiment, they learn new skills, and they get excited. And maybe they will win a medal or two.” She is right on point. One of my dearest friends, Orville Rogers, read my book Aerobics at age 50 and began exercising the next day. He enjoyed it so much—because he felt better and had more energy—that he decided to enter races in his age category. He began competing in senior running events after age 90, events ranging from 60-meter “sprints” to 5,000-meter distance races. At the time of his death, at age 101, he held 16 world records for men over 90. Through regular exercise and healthy living, Orville was able to “square off the curve,” as it were, by delaying the time of senility and bodily breakdown into a brief period just prior to his death.

We’re now seeing fitness equipment specifically designed for older exercisers being installed in gyms and retirement community fitness centers. These treadmills, elliptical trainers and weight machines are easier to get on and off, have wheelchair-height seats and start more slowly. Seniors are also exploring low-impact workout programs at the gym and at home. Staying active helps keep your mind and body sharp as well as preventing disease and the risk of falls. As we age, our movements slow down because our muscles’ ability to contract quickly lessens. By making just a few modifications, older adults will find they can perform many of the same exercises younger people can. Modifying exercises and incorporating power, motion and balance into your workouts can keep you strong at any age. 

While you may not be able to run, jump or squat like you could in your 20s, you can still challenge your body through simple modifications. Follow these three steps:

  1. Adjust the resistance to an appropriate level.
  2. Use a slightly smaller range of motion. 
  3. Perform repetitions at a slower, more controlled pace.

Remember, the best way to exercise initially is simply to avoid inactivity. Get involved in some type of exercise you enjoy—it doesn’t need to be competitive—even walking a half-hour every day is beneficial. The World Health Organization claims there are more than 500 million people worldwide who are inactive, and their medical care cost in treating diseases related to inactivity is expected to surpass $30 billion annually.  

U.S. exercise guidelines already acknowledge that older adults will benefit even by doing less than the recommended 150 minutes of movement per week—and that even small amounts count. And HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) activity under supervision is something now recommended for older adults.

I recommend getting at least 30 minutes of collective or sustained aerobic activity most days per week in addition to at least two days of strength training per week. As we age, the aerobic-strength training ratios change, too: 

  • Ages 40 and younger: 80% aerobic exercise; 20% strength training.
  • Ages 41-50: 70% aerobic exercise; 30% strength training.
  • Ages 51-60: 60% aerobic exercise; 40% strength training. 
  • Ages 61+: 55% aerobic exercise; 45% strength training.

Do not become discouraged; aging is a natural part of life, and God has decreed that our present bodies are not meant to last forever (Genesis 6:3). Yet it is never too late to be a good steward of the body our Creator has given us through regular exercise, making modifications along the way as we age. We all want to live vital, robust lives. Our goal should be “squaring off the curve”—like Orville Rogers—living a long, active and healthy life to the fullest and then dying suddenly—just as I hope to do! 

Visit CooperAerobics.com/Health-Tips to view workout videos and fitness tips from our certified professional fitness trainers.  ©2024 Kenneth H. Cooper

Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., MPH, known worldwide as “the father of aerobics,” is the founder and chairman of Cooper Aerobics in Dallas and chairman emeritus of The Cooper Institute.

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