Combining Social and Physical Fitness for Seniors

May 4, 2018

Emotional isolation and physical inactivity are two of the biggest problems facing the growing senior citizen population. Fortunately, there are some way to address both these issues in a single program.

It is ironic that in a society where instant communication is the norm, many of us feel very isolated. That’s especially true among seniors, as 43 percentof folks over 60 say they feel lonely almost every day. While there is a considerable gap between feeling lonely and feeling as though there is no joy in life, isolation is the first step on a path that ends in a very dark place. In fact, this same study concluded that lonely seniors have a 45 percent higher risk of death.

Loneliness is also self-perpetuating, as many isolated older people develop habits that push other people away. The good news here is that if loneliness begins a vicious cycle, social activity will likely trigger an upward spiral.

The physical and mental benefits of physical fitness are well-chronicled, especially in terms of delayed development of chronic illness and improved mood. To fully get these benefits, physical activity is as essential as regular exercise. That means walking the dog, popping over to the neighbor’s house, going to the grocery store, and so on.

Physical fitness also improves physical appearance, and while the difference may not be as stark as television commercials apply, it will almost definitely be noticeable. Since people who feel better about themselves are more confident in social situations, the interplay between physical activity and social wellness is even more apparent.

How can caregivers and loved ones encourage senior citizens to get out and get active?

Start Slowly

In almost any journey, the first few steps are often the hardest ones. Once momentum starts building, the rest of the process is often easier. In the early stages of a get-out-and-get-active campaign, don’t be discouraged if there is considerable reluctance or resistance. A slow start will make the activity enjoyable. It will be more likely that the senior will be willing to continue the activity.

Senior day trips are a good place to start. Civic, church, and other organizations often sponsor trips to a museum or a baseball game or whatever. If Mom or Dad is interested in the event, and s/he probably will be, offer it as a one-time-only affair, “If you don’t like the trip, you never have to go on another one and you never have to see those people again.”

Try to pick an event that includes a good bit of walking, because walking incorporates both physical activity and social interaction, so the person will feel better physically and emotionally.

Don’t let Mom or Dad’s limited mobility stop them or you. There are usually plenty of activities that specifically cater to these individuals, and even if there are not, seniors are typically a little more accommodating of mobility-impaired people.

The Next Step

After two or three trips, Mom or Dad may realize that it feels good to get out and be active. They may feel more energetic and enthusiastic. The difference may be subtle, so look carefully. If Mom or Dad shares memories from the last trip or anticipates the next one, that’s even better.

To take things up a notch, encourage older people to register for a fitness class. For example, there are many age-appropriate classes for beginners that focus on easy yoga poses for seniorsthat they can also practice at home. Water aerobics classes are often a big hit as well. Any class that combines physical fitness with social interaction is a good one.

Yoga is often good because it is also easy to follow-up during non-class hours and it is also easy to move up to the next skill level. Encourage Mom or Dad to practice, ask a friend to join them, or consider moving up from the beginner to basic class.

When one class a week becomes a habit, along with regular (or at least semi-regular) physical and social activity, add another weekly class to the schedule. Typically, the goal should be to give Mom or Dad something to do about three days a week. Over time, you’ll probably find that activity and class attendance require less prodding than they did before. When these gentle pushes become nudges, it may be time to go to the final step.

Endgame

As mentioned earlier, once momentum starts building, physical and social skills develop quickly. As a result, within six or eight months or beginning a reasonably aggressive program, it is not unusual for previously inactive and isolated seniors to need an outlet that attendance at fitness classes cannot provide.

When this happens, it might be time to move to the front of the class.

While still attending the intermediate or advanced group, there may be an instructor opportunity for a beginner class. A substitute or associate instructor position is usually a good place to start, as there is basically no commitment and usually no hard feelings if Mom or Dad says “no,” either to the entire idea or to a particular week.

After a few months of part time work, full time work is probably appropriate. At this juncture, your previous role as a supporter and prodder may be to keep Mom or Dad from taking on too much too soon.

One of the only drawbacks to teaching is that Mom or Dad may miss out on some of the social interaction that the class provides. Individual involvement may fill the gap. There are a lot of lonely and inactive seniors out there who can benefit from some physical fitness and social interaction. And, since your senior was in that same position just a few short months ago, s/he can greatly sympathize with this situation.

Now, the whole process begins anew, and the student has literally become the teacher in both physical and social circles. As a supportive loved one or caregiver, you do not get too many victory laps, but be sure you enjoy one when your work here is done.-

Joe Fleming

Co-Founder, Vive Health

Cell: 239-248-9618

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