“I am responsible for the way I age”

This ‘moment of truth’ fully revealed itself to me at the age of 60, when I found myself clutching my daughter’s arm for stability as we walked through the cobbled streets in the old walled city of Istanbul. I heard myself say, “Have you noticed there are no old people about, this would be really difficult for the disabled or elderly.” Then, I realised the significance of what I had said.

That image of myself as a rickety, prematurely old and dependant person led me to a decision. I may have been 60 in years, but in my head I was 40. I would push back the neglect of many years by getting fit. I joined the gym on my return and found the routine of fitness training did not come naturally – as I treaded the treadmill I would think how much easier it would have been if I had begun an exercise regime earlier.

Belly dancing for fitness at Bellizone

Ten years later and I still regularly exercise. My exercise of choice is pilates for strength and balance, aqua aerobics for general fitness, walking the dog, and gardening. The routine carries me along and my body thanks me for my efforts; I’m probably fitter and healthier than I was at 40.

Roy J. Shephard of the Dept. of Preventive Medicine and Biostatistics, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, describes the progression from young adulthood through to old age.

“Young adulthood typically covers the period from 20-35 years of age, when both biological function and physical performance reach their peak. During young middle-age (35-45 years), physical activity usually wanes, with a 5-10 kg accumulation of body fat. Active pursuits may be shared with a growing family, but it becomes less important to impress either an employer or persons of the opposite sex with physical appearance and performance.

“During later middle-age (45-65 years), women reach the menopause, and men also substantially reduce their output of sex hormones. Career opportunities have commonly peaked and a larger disposable income often allows energy demanding domestic tasks to be deputied to service contractors. The decline in physical condition thus continues and may accelerate.

“In early old age (65-75 years), there may be a modest increase of physical activity, in an attempt to fill free time resulting from retirement. By middle old age (75-85 years), many people have developed some physical disability, and in the final stage (very old age, over 85 years) they become totally dependent. A typical expectation is of 8-10 years of partial disability and a year of total dependency.”

Dr Shephard acknowledges the wide inter-individual differences at any given chronological age. “In terms of maximal oxygen intake, muscle strength and flexibility, the best preserved 65 year old may out-perform a sedentary 25 year old. Whether assessing fitness for continuing employment or recommending an exercise prescription, decisions should thus be based upon biological rather than chronological age. Because [for the normal older person] initial fitness is quite low, the aerobic condition of a senior can be improved by low intensity of training.”

Very wide range of choices

All of the exercise programmes for the 50+ age group in Hawke’s Bay that I researched (see side box) were age appropriate, and will restore strength and fitness while providing for socialisation and fun – and the social component of group exercise is a great motivator for most people. Courses cost between $2-$10 a session.
Organised sport is an option for many reasonably fit and motivated people playing lawn bowls, croquet, tennis, cycling, walking and tramping. Run Walk Hawke’s Bay is a running and walking club that aims to motivate and assist people to run or walk within their capabilities – the majority of members are aged over 45 and very social.

Water exercise is very popular and swimming is the exercise of choice for those who prefer individual exercise. Water is relaxing, cool and provides an almost weightless environment for increasing aerobic fitness and toning up. All the conditions normally associated with exercise: sweating, straining and pounding are not fun and don’t occur in water. Aqua aerobics avoids risk of injury and is the ideal exercise for the less fit or older person. For the already fit, water provides the natural resistance which helps to tone and strengthen muscles throughout the workout.

Pilates, yoga, Body Balance for 50+ and tai chi strengthen the body core, improving balance, movement, flexibility and calming the mind.

Dance fitness programmes are fun and combine mental coordination, aerobic exercise with social interaction. If you like the sexy moves, Lisa Gray leads a group of belly dancers, the oldest member is 64 and several over 50. Felicity Mardon runs line dancing and Zumba Gold classes to average attendances of 30 women aged between 50-90, five times a week to the rhythms of salsa, cha cha, rumba and rock ‘n roll.

The very unfit and elderly benefit greatly from regular exercise and Sport Hawke’s Bay’s older adult programmes received over 47,000 ‘visits’ last year, with 20,000 ‘visits’ to Kiwi Seniors. Kiwi Seniors, with close to 800 older adult members, runs from ten community-based facilities across Hawke’s Bay: the Wairoa Community Centre, Hastings Sports Centre, Rodney Green Events Centre, Hastings RSA, Taradale Rugby Club, King Georges Hall, Memorial Hall (Waipukurau), and Wairoa Presbyterian Hall.

Kiwi Seniors was introduced in 1991 as an incentive to those aged 50 and over to keep fit, socialize and stay active. This programme includes badminton, table tennis, group exercise to music, resistance exercise with hand weights or dynabands, exercise with balls and tai chi. The sessions are 45-50 minutes and adaptable to all fitness levels.

Colin Stone, chief executive, Sport Hawke’s Bay says, “It is important that we continue to provide services and programmes that assist in keeping our older adult population independent, healthy and active and out of the health system. Once older adults fall into the health system it becomes more costly.”

Sport HB spends over $100,000 per annum to run its older adult programmes, which include Sit and Be Fit, Rest Home Programmes, Kaumatua Programmes and Kiwi Seniors, which have traditionally been funded via a balance of user pays, DHB and Sport HB funding. The DHB reduced its funding earlier this year and targeted its Kaumatua programmes, which has meant an increase in user pays for Kiwi Seniors, (although the programme is still subsidised strongly by Sport HB.)

ACC continue to provide support to the Falls Prevention Programme (Upright and Active) run by Sport HB, but programmes (and funding) have been more limited this year.

Dr Tim Frendin, writing in BayBuzz (July, 2012) concludes, “We can improve the likelihood of getting to and maintaining healthy old age with relatively simple lifestyle measures – a healthy diet, no smoking, regular exercise, a little alcohol, something to occupy our time and our mind and a good social network. On achieving such an age, however, there is much progress yet to be made in accommodating our health needs and demands. We’re not quite ready for old age.”

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