What Do Senior Need to Feel Motivated To Exercise?

While there are many different factors that contribute to good health, some within our control and some not, exercise is undoubtedly one of the most important. The recommended amount of exercise for older adults is the same as that for every adult over the age of 18: at least 150 min weekly (about 30 min 5 days a week) of moderate-intensity physical activity.

While physical exercise comes with a host of benefits for every person at every age, it becomes increasingly important the older we get. Exercise not only helps prevent many age-related declines in our health, it can have a direct positive impact on our risk of developing chronic diseases and our ability to manage current illnesses. Exercise reduces our risk of falling, improves cognitive functioning, and condition our bodies to perform the daily tasks that help us live independently for a long, long time.

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Most of us already know this, whether we’re 30 or 80, because the evidence for the benefits of exercise has been accumulating for a very long time.

Is exercise good for us?  Yes. Emphatically, yes.

So then why are 31 million adults over the age of 50 inactive?  The issue, of course, comes back to motivation. And, clearly knowledge about the benefits of exercise isn’t enough motivation for many, many people.

As care professionals, what can we do to effectively motivate more seniors to get active and stay active now and for the rest of their lives?

Here are 4 Ways to Help Seniors Get Motivated and Stay Motivated to Exercise

#1. Encourage a small number of manageable goals.

Goals are an important (perhaps even essential) part of creating a habit that sticks – IF they are small and manageable. In many cases, goals that are too numerous or overwhelmingly large are the enemy of motivation, while the opposite is true of small, manageable goals.

Working towards a goal can infuse our days with purpose, energy, and pride in our victories and accomplishments. But most experts agree that we are more likely to be successful if we set goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-based. In other words – SMART goals.

For seniors who know they should exercise, but are struggling to do so consistently, SMART goals can be a great motivator.

1. Establish goals that are as specific as possible. Example: I will complete these 4 exercises every Tuesday and Thursday during the month of September.

2. Whatever the goal, Measure progress. For seniors with access to HUR SmartTouch equipped strength training machines, tracking progress is a built-in part of every workout. For seniors who do not have access to a gym that’s equipped with automatic outcome-based progress tracking technology, record progress in a notebook or on a smartphone. As with the goal itself, measure progress in specific ways.

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3. Create goals that are challenging, yet 100% Achievable. In most cases, it’s better to not create goals at all than create goals that are unachievable. Working towards a goal that you might never reach is demotivating in the extreme. For seniors, it’s important to set fitness goals that they are physically capable of safely accomplishing within a set (preferably small) amount of time.

4. It’s not enough for goals to be achievable, they must also be Realistic. Setting realistic goals is all about aligning them with the person’s sense of confidence in their ability to achieve that goal. In other words, focus on sure bets – especially at the beginning. For example, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 equals no confidence and 10 equals 100% certainty, the goal should land somewhere between 7–10.

5. Establish clear Time commitments. Pick a start date and time, and completion date and time. For example, “Starting tomorrow, I’ll attend this exercise class once a week for a month.”  Having both a start and end time prevents “someday” from turning into never and helps curb people’s fear about starting something that they can never stop without feeling like a failure.        

#2. Help Make the Connection Between Exercise and Identity

Every senior is a treasure trove of stories about things they’ve done, adventures they’ve had, people they’ve known, things they’ve learned, and things they still want to do. Caring for their health is about more than preventing future illness or injury. It’s about living the way they want to live right now.

Often the focus of why seniors should exercise is on future negative possibilities that haven’t happened yet. If you don’t exercise, you could fall… have a heart attack or stroke… develop diabetes or other illnesses, etc.

It can be difficult for many people to generate lasting motivation for behavior when the WHY is based on a non-tangible thing that may or may not happen at some point in the future.

For many seniors, intrinsic motivation to maintain a consistent exercise routine comes from the realization that exercise will support the way they want to live, and the things they want to do, NOW.

Dawn Mans is the Wellness Connection Coordinator for Three Pillars Senior Living in Wisconsin. A huge part of their physical fitness program is a concentrated effort to help residents discover and connect to a deeply personal reason WHY they want to exercise.

“I realized years ago that if our residents and community members don’t have a meaningful connection to WHY they are taking on an exercise program, they are much more likely to give up before achieving any kind of meaningful results.  Many of the seniors who come into the gym for the first time have never worked out before, or haven’t worked out in a long time.  Their reason for not working out isn’t because they didn’t know that exercise is good for them.  It’s that they haven’t connected exercise to their ability to live their life as they want to live it.”

Helping seniors connect to their big WHY at the beginning of an exercise routine is especially important because exercise doesn’t pay off immediately.  When seniors can tap into an intrinsically motivating factor for sticking with it, they’re more likely to create a habit.  Then, with time, the results they receive from being strong and feeling healthy become the ultimate motivation.         

#3. Encourage the Use of Technology

Even though most older adults aren’t early adopters to new technology, a growing number of seniors are incorporating technology into their lives as a way of supporting their lifestyle, staying connected with family and friends, and just having fun.

For many seniors, the internet and social networking are wonderful opportunities to remain in touch with loved ones who are not geographically close or who are too busy to visit often. Family and friends, in turn, often find such connections convenient and less stressful. In addition to social benefits, online connections also provide regular chances for family and friends to “check in” on their loved one’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

Likewise, many seniors are extremely responsive to the use of technology in the gym for many of the same reasons that they enjoy technology in their personal and social lives – it makes their lives easier, more convenient, and more enjoyable.

With over 10,000 installations on five continents, HUR has been the leading supplier of strength training equipment for seniors for decades largely because of the use of technology. HUR SmartTouch technology is a cloud-based computerized exercise and operating solution that remembers individual exercise programs, monitors progress, and makes automatic machine adjustments for each user.

Most importantly, seniors love it.

” I started strength training for the first time in my life because we have HUR equipment. Before, I was intimidated and afraid I’d do it wrong. The HUR Smart technology takes all the guesswork out and gave me the confidence to go for it. Today, I feel stronger than ever. I can even do push-ups! It’s especially nice to get in a workout that targets every muscle group in just 35 minutes!” – Ann Riley, resident at Presbyterian Village North

One of the primary reasons that HUR SmartTouch technology is so popular is because it affords seniors who would otherwise need assistance, the ability to work out independently. Trainers create exercise programs for individual clients and program them into the HUR SmartTouch system. After that, seniors need only to swipe their wristband at the machine for it to automatically adjust to their pre-programmed specifications, load their personalized program, and display it on a touch screen. The touch screen guides their workout, counting reps and even making small, incremental adjustments to the amount of resistance as they get stronger.

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4. Encourage the Feeling of Usefulness

Everyone needs to feel useful in one way or another. This is true regardless of age or ability. For many seniors, their need to feel useful can be harnessed as a powerful motivator to get to the gym and exercise on a regular basis.

Frank Willet is a resident at Good Samaritan Society – Mountain Home, a senior living community in Arkansas, who had the vision to create a place where older adults throughout the community could come and take charge of their health.  He saw the need for a place that could support active aging and set about making it happen.

Franks drive to be useful to his community, and the communities encouragement and support in fulfilling that need, ultimately resulted in a brand new wellness center that serves residents and non-residents in a host of meaningful ways. On any given day of the week, the new wellness center is bustling with residents and seniors from the surrounding community who come to exercise on the HUR equipment, take a class, or attend a seminar.

“Our residents are more involved in events and activities than ever before and tell us all the time that because of exercising on the HUR equipment they have increased strength and stamina to participate in the activities they love.” Bethany Clark, Wellness Director at Good Samaritan Society – Mountain Home

Another great example of using the need to feel useful as a positive motivator for exercise can be found at Canterbury Woods, a senior living community in Williamsville, New York

The community regularly holds fitness competitions that require residents to act as team leaders for groups of their peers. Debbie Lennox, the community’s fitness coordinator, explains.

 “We asked 4 of our residents who had been consistently training if they would serve as captains of teams, with 6 residents on each team. We explained they would each earn points for their team every time they used the HUR and cardio equipment. What happened was really amazing. One of the captains was calling her team every night to find out if they went to the gym and how they did. Team members were encouraging each other and cheering one another on. In fact, the residents got so into the competition that we had to set limits to how much they could use the machines!” 

For senior living professionals, creating opportunities for seniors to have a useful role in more than just their own physical fitness can be an incredible, lasting motivator.