Emily Parkman, 79, views the topic of exercise for seniors from a different perspective: Upside down, while doing a headstand.
Parkman, of Cleveland Heights, does yoga three times a week at the Atma Center near her home. She admits she doesn’t always do the headstand with the rest of class, but when the mood strikes her, she puts her head down and kicks her feet up against the wall with her classmates — some of whom are decades younger.
Non-traditional exercise, from yoga to ballroom dancing, is the hippest trend for the retirement set. Those exercises can help older adults — from vibrant 60-year-olds to wheelchair-bound octogenarians — maintain critical physical and mental abilities as they age.
“It’s never too late to start exercising,” says Dr. Peter Degolia, a family and geriatrics doctor.
Starting a new activity requires more care now that you’re older, though.
“Remember, you’re not a 40-year-old anymore, so be realistic about how much you’re going to start off doing,” Degolia advises. “Take it easy and slowly increase the amount of exercise you do based on how you’re feeling and how your body’s responding.”
The type of exercise seniors should choose depends in large part on their physical conditions. Before undertaking any new exercise, everyone should visit the doctor.
More physicians are recognizing the benefits of alternative forms of exercise. For example, yoga has been proven to help older adults with asthma and other respiratory problems, says Degolia.
Colleen Liotta, a yoga instructor who teaches classes at The Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Broadview Heights and elsewhere in Greater Cleveland, says it’s important for anyone with medical conditions to be up-front with the instructor, as well as getting their doctor’s approval.
“I had a woman show up on oxygen,” Liotta says. “She’s one of my best students.
“We’ve all got aches and pains. We’ve all got issues with our joints, or maybe we’ve had surgeries. There’s certain yoga poses you shouldn’t do — and there’s certain poses that will help you.”
Those with arthritis might want to try swimming or aquacises in the pool.
“I often will recommend pool therapy to those who may have a harder time going out and doing a routine walking exercise because of weight or advanced arthritis,” Degolia says.
One of the biggest dangers with older adults is losing balance and falling. A fall that causes a hip fracture could lead to impairment in walking, social isolation or even death.
“Tai chi has been shown to be very helpful in terms of balance and the ability to walk,” Degolia says. In addition, he says, tai chi can help manage pain and build muscle strength.
Edward Niam, founder of the Institute for Self Healing, teaches classes to elderly adults at the Gardens of McGregor and Amasa Stone in East Cleveland and Menorah Park in Beachwood. His students range from fully ambulatory people in adult day-care programs and assisted-living facilities to wheelchair-bound seniors under full nursing care.
“The whole concept of tai chi is that you’re always tensing and relaxing the muscles. You’re stretching them in different ways and different directions,” Niam explains. “You’re exercising all the joints in the body without stressing them. And it increases circulation.”
Niam says he’s seen tai chi help even physically impaired seniors who only take his class once a week. In his more mobile groups, he recommends practicing tai chi between classes or just finding new ways to keep moving.
“I tell them, ‘Don’t sit in comfortable chairs, and when you do, get up every 20 minutes and move somewhere else,’ ” he says.
For patients with poor mobility, Degolia recommends using handgrips to squeeze and relax arm muscles. A senior who still has leg movement can put a 1-pound can in an old purse, hook it to the end of her foot, and do leg lifts — all while seated in a chair.
For more active seniors, ballroom dancing is growing in popularity as exercise.
“It keeps you young,” says Lisa Vegas, president and co-owner of the Cleveland Ballroom Co. in Beachwood.
And what about the aches and pains of growing old?
“We’ve nursed many people through hip and knee replacements,” Vegas says. “Afterward, they’re as good as new. They would have never been able to keep dancing without it. It gives them a second life.”
Vegas says ballroom dancing is ideal as exercise and a social outlet for older adults. She sees many people take it up after retirement. Couples can enjoy dancing together in private classes, while singles can join group classes to meet people. Some of the most vibrant seniors even take part in ballroom-dancing competitions.
The social aspects of exercise can’t be understated. More research shows that the more isolated older adults become, the more likely they are to suffer from depression, Degolia says.
Exercise itself can help alleviate depression, while classes are a great way for seniors to get out of the house and socialize.
Emily Parkman has made yoga friends at the Atma Center and tennis friends at the Cleveland Racquet Club, where she plays twice a week. She knows some of her old friends think yoga is a bit odd, and she admits she was hesitant to try a class at first.
“I thought it was sort of a weird thing,” Parkman says. Now, she goes at least three times a week.
“It energizes you,” she says. “It works through your whole body and your mind. The instructors teach you a great deal about breathing. Your muscles work better if you breathe properly.”
In the beginning, she didn’t like the meditation time at the end of class, but now it’s one of her favorite parts of yoga.
“At first I thought the meditation was a total waste of time,” she says. But “it’s really very relaxing.
“I always feel better when I come out of there. It encompasses the whole person.”
Though yoga is not considered a religious practice, Liotta says, it does allow for clearing the mind and going deeper within one’s own thoughts. Above all, it balances the physical with the mental — ideal for keeping aging minds and bodies sharp.
“If you don’t use it, you’re going to lose it. And that’s true of your body and your mind,” Liotta says. “You’ve got to concentrate with the poses. There’s a lot going on with the meditative practices, too.”
Since there are numerous styles of yoga, it’s important that older adults find a class that’s right for them. Most should shy away from an intensive power or hot yoga. Chair yoga — where participants stay seated throughout the class — or gentle yoga is more appropriate. It’s also a good idea to ask an instructor the age range of the class, so a 75-year-old isn’t trying to keep pace with a 25-year-old.
To find the right class, Liotta recommends calling a local senior center, community recreation department or yoga studio to ask for recommendations.
“I encourage my patients to exercise half an hour a day, four or five days a week,” says Degolia.
Retirement isn’t the time to sit back in a rocker and put your feet up, after all.