Why Seniors Need to Get to the Gym

Part 1 (of 4)


Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP

Psychologist/Senior Fitness Specialist

Why Seniors Need to Get to the Gym

According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), after age 50 sedentary individuals lose approximately 1.5% of their muscle strength per year. This progressive muscle degradation, medically known as sarcopenia, without intervention, can cause 15% loss of strength every subsequent decade. 35% of seniors over 65 are obese and 71% have high blood pressure. 65% of seniors today are functional, 30% are considered “frail,” with at least one significant functional limitation, and only 5% are considered highly fit—“elite.” Finally, less than 50% of seniors exercise occasionally but only 5% get the ACE-recommended amount of regular exercise—and all these numbers are predicted to worsen in the near future.

The Benefits of Exercise

An appropriately-designed fitness program increases strength, stamina, flexibility, and balance. Perhaps more importantly, a fitness program enhances functionality—bending, lifting, reaching, sitting and standing, walking, climbing stairs, and doing household chores and tasks. Physiologically, exercise improves lung and heart capacity, bone density, and cholesterol levels. Studies also continue to show that exercise has significant psychological benefits—relaxation, better sleep, more concentration, a sense of well-being and positive mood, weight control, and it combats depression and anxiety. It is estimated that regular, well-designed exercise can slow the natural aging process, medically called senescence, by more than 50%. ACE recommends that seniors have 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, consisting of a minimum of two sessions per week, preferably three, in which the senior engages in aerobics, resistance training, and stretching (to include some balance work).

The Cost of Exercise

Committing to a fitness plan takes time away from other activities. It will cost you to join a gym, if you so choose, or to purchase some home equipment, if you decide to go in that direction. Some gyms, though, will offer seniors a discount. In fact, through the “Silver Sneakers” programs some gyms and many YM/WCA’s offer free memberships, depending on what supplemental Medicare plan you have. There will be the added expense of driving to the gym and to purchase exercise attire, including appropriate shoes. Exercise will make you sweat and, especially early on, cause you to feel tired and a bit sore. This is the price you will have to pay to remain highly functional in your “golden years.”

Probably the main objection most seniors have regarding joining a gym is that they believe they will not fit in and become uncomfortable with all the young male “hard bodies” around. This common perception is incorrect. While now and then you might see a young stud grunting his way through his workout, more women today are found in gyms than men. Most of the people exercising there are trying to get into or stay in reasonable shape and are not about to enter a body-building exhibition. There are now more seniors in gyms than in previous generations, which makes it more comfortable for new seniors, but there needs to be many more.

Why Go to a Gym

Of course, you can walk, jog, hike, and bike outside and do calisthenics and push-ups etc. on your own, without joining a gym. Some folks buy fitness equipment and develop their own gym at home. If these options work for you, congratulations.

However, personal and professional experience has taught this writer that few individuals maintain a long-term fitness program with the above arrangements. It is very difficult to exercise consistently and effectively, over time, alone. The huge market of slightly used home gym equipment suggests that a home gym, especially for a senior who has never exercised regularly before, is probably not the best choice. Moreover, I have learned that if you have your own equipment or a nearby jogging path, it is easy to fall prey to the “I’ll get around to it” syndrome. This is where you look at the equipment (or the jogging track) and think to yourself you will use it later that day (since it so readily available) but later comes only rarely.

The advantages of belonging to a gym, in my view, are the following: When you go to a gym or club you are there to work out; there is no putting it off. When starting a fitness program gyms have trainers on hand who will help you design an exercise routine suited to you and ensure
you are doing the exercises correctly, with the proper form; you won’t get this important information with a home set-up, unless you hire a personal home trainer, which can be quite expensive. If you maintain a regular weekly workout schedule in a gym—which you absolutely should do—you will quickly begin to recognize other seniors who are on the same schedule and begin to interact with them. Moreover, most gyms have many classes, ranging from aerobics, to weight training, to yoga, that you can attend, usually for free. Therefore, the gym is not only a place to exercise, the gym can also provide an excellent, healthy, social experience--which many seniors also need.

Author's Bio: 

Larry F. Waldman, Ph.D., ABPP is a licensed psychologist who practiced in the Paradise Valley area of Phoenix for nearly 45 years. He worked with children, adolescents, parents, adults, and couples. He also provided forensic consultations in the areas of family law, personal injury, and estate planning. He speaks professionally on marriage, parenting, private practice development, psychotherapy, and wellness to laypersons, educators, corporations, attorneys, chiropractors, and fellow mental health professionals. He teaches graduate courses for the Educational Psychology Department of Ottawa University. He also is a certified senior fitness specialist. He is the author of “Who’s Raising Whom? A Parent’s Guide to Effective Child Discipline;” “Coping with Your Adolescent;” “How Come I Love Him but Can’t Live with Him? Making Your Marriage Work Better;” “The Graduate Course You Never Had: How to Develop, Manage, and Market a Flourishing Private Practice—With and Without Managed Care;” “Too Busy Earning a Living to Make Your Fortune? Discover the Psychology of Achieving Your Life Goals;” and “Overcoming Your Negotiaphobia: Negotiating Your Way Through Life.” His contact information is: 602-418-8161; email--LarryWaldmanPhD@cox.net; website--TopPhoenixPsychologist.com.