No one really relishes the idea of growing older and experiencing the health issues that can accompany aging. If there was one thing you could do to significantly improve your chances of staying mentally sharp, physically healthy and independent throughout your golden years, wouldn’t you do it? Exercising regularly is proven to help, but if you've never been to the gym, you might have a bit of gym intimidation.
Exercise has health benefits for people of all ages, and it’s especially important for seniors. Regular exercise helps people live independently, reduce their risks of falling and breaking bones, and lower their chances of developing serious illnesses like cancer, heart disease, joint issues, diabetes and high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet only about 40 percent of Americans between 65 and 74 meet physical activity guidelines, and activity levels decrease even more as people grow older, the CDC says.
“Everyone wants to discover the fountain of youth, that medicine or treatment or face cream that will keep them looking and feeling great well into old age,” says Brian Zehetner, director of health and fitness for Planet Fitness and co-author of “Working Out Sucks (And Why It Doesn’t Have To).” “But that secret has already been discovered. It’s exercise, and it works just as well for senior citizens as it does for people of any age group.”
If you’ve never really exercised before, or want to increase your current exercise level, you may have thought about joining a gym. You may have even walked into one intending to join — and walked right back out when you saw it was crowded with young, fit people. Your experience wouldn’t be unique; a Planet Fitness survey of seniors who don’t go to the gym found more than a third say they find the gym intimidating, and more than half of those who are intimidated say they fear being judged by other members.
“We call that ‘gym intimidation,’” Zehetner says. “It’s that feeling that others in the gym will judge you for being less than perfect, and it can keep people of all ages, including seniors, from getting the exercise they need. But it doesn’t have to.”
People older than 60 who exercise on a weekly basis feel 12.3 years younger than their real age, the Planet Fitness survey found. In comparison, those who don’t exercise claim to feel only 5.6 years younger than their actual age. Gym-going seniors say they go to feel better physically (91 percent), live a longer life (70 percent), feel better mentally (64 percent) and socialize (37 percent).
Zehetner offers some advice for seniors to overcome gym intimidation:
* Start slowly. Whether you’re new to exercise in general or just new to a gym environment, everyone has limitations. It’s important to know and respect yours. It’s frustrating to injure yourself while trying to improve your health, and as you get older it takes longer to recover from injuries. Be safe and smart by going slowly, and establishing a foundation that encompasses cardiovascular conditioning, strength training and flexibility.
* Don’t be afraid to ask for help. New and unfamiliar exercise equipment can be intimidating, but it’s important to work out safely. Your gym’s trainers and staff are there to help ensure you know how to use the equipment safely and effectively.
* Don’t be too distressed or discouraged by discomfort. People of all ages can experience stiff joints, muscle soreness and other minor discomforts when they begin to exercise. These are all signs your body is aware of the stress you’re putting it through and is responding and adapting — it’s part of the process of getting more fit. Exercise will become easier over time, and it won’t take you as long to recover from discomfort.
* Find a workout buddy. Having a friend along can be motivational when you try something new. Even better, working out side-by-side with a buddy can help you measure the intensity of your workout. If you can carry on a conversation while working out, you’re getting a moderate level of activity. If you can’t talk without pausing for breath every few words, you’re getting a more vigorous workout.