Exercise is Key to Successful Aging

As physical and mental benefits of exercise become clearer, older Americans are paying attention.


Seniors are sweating a lot of things these days, but in at least one case, this is a good thing. People from their 60s to their 80s are demanding much higher levels of physical fitness facilities and programs. At neighborhood gyms and retirement communities throughout the country, a pronounced fitness and wellness trend is making itself felt.

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The physical and mental benefits of vigorous exercise have become increasingly clear in recent years. So has the linkage with fitness and diet. Lastly, the social benefits of fitness and wellness classes are being recognized as a powerful benefit as well as a marketing tool to get seniors into pools and onto treadmills, bikes, and cross trainers.

Exercise and weight are the two variables that older people associate most strongly with their well-being, according to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. "Frequent exercise, not being obese, and visiting a dentist are even more important than are healthy eating and not smoking to reporting great health in old age," Gallup says. "While good health habits alone cannot stave off the effects of aging, those who do practice good health habits give themselves an edge in old age."

Del Webb has more than 50 active adult communities throughout the country designed for residents age 55 and older. Nearly three-fourths of Webb residents say they exercise regularly. Beyond making more use of Webb's on-site fitness centers and organized group sporting activities, Webb says, residents are branching out into more physically demanding activities.

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"Baby Boomers enjoy experiences, rather than just activities. They are also known to go to great lengths to resist the realities of aging," says Judy Julison, the company's national lifestyle director. "Golf and tennis are still popular, but now so are outdoor adventure activities like sky diving, marathons, rock climbing, off-roading, and marathon cycling with new friends."

If seniors are otherwise healthy into their 70s and even 80s, there is no physical reason they can't engage in strenuous physical activities. Social attitudes about the physical capabilities of older bodies are slowly changing, but remain an impediment to healthy aging for many seniors. Still, public gyms as well as those at private senior communities have introduced more aggressive weight and cardiovascular programs for seniors in recent years.

In addition to meeting residents' needs, many retirement communities also are trying to expand revenues by opening their facilities to people in nearby towns and cities. So they're putting in more equipment and more diverse fitness programs. While step aerobics may still be a popular offering for people in their mid-80s, retirement community pools also are seeing more lap lanes and places where people can engage in more vigorous workouts.

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Agawam Senior Center in Massachusetts opened an expanded fitness and wellness program near the beginning of the decade. "This is a place for seniors who are well and active and we constructed the fitness area to meet those needs," said project manager John Darigan from Barr, Inc., the general contractors for the project. "We talked to seniors and we knew that when we constructed the fitness space, it had to be a lot more than a just gym. We needed it to adapt to everything from tai chi to ballroom dancing, line dancing, or yoga."

The likelihood that Americans will exercise declines as they age, Gallup reports. It asked people of all ages how many of them exercised at least three times for 30 or more minutes during the previous week. The highest positive response rate—59 percent—was recorded for people aged 18 to 24. It steadily trended lower with age, stabilizing at about 50 percent for people from 40 to 70 and then declining to the mid-40s for people in their 80s and 90s.

"Americans' health problems tend to increase and multiply as they age, thus likely making exercise harder," Gallup says. While 60 percent of those ages 18 to 24 say they are in excellent or very good health, this percentage drops steadily with age and bottoms out at 35 percent for those ages 85 to 89. It then rises slightly to 39 percent for people in their 90s.