How to Overcome Objections that Keep Seniors from Exercising

The World Health Organization defines Active Aging as “the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation, and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age.” The term is used to describe the idea of supporting holistic well-being. This whole-person approach to aging begins with the idea that every aspect of wellness is connected and includes good physical, social, and mental health and remaining active within one’s family and community.

For businesses offering products and services to older adults, the term is more than a description of how people are aging. It’s an entire industry.  Meeting the needs, wants and desires of such a large, diverse population is changing business models and having a profound effect on our entire economy.

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Senior living communities across the country are embracing the idea of whole-person active aging as the foundation on which they build an organization-wide culture of wellness. This means creating lifestyle opportunities rooted in physical fitness, mental and cognitive health, enjoyment, social connections, and lifelong learning. To meet the needs, wants, and desires of such a large, diverse population, many senior living communities are rebuilding or remodeling small gyms into robust fitness centers equipped with state-of-the-art machines, areas for social activities, rooms for fitness classes, and even coffee and juice bars.

Having a small gym on campus with a few machines and free weights for residents to work out from time to time is the “old” way of thinking. Today’s senior living facilities are creating fitness centers that are the hub of the lifestyle of the community, meeting social needs and the desire to spend time engaged in fun, interesting activities, not just physical fitness.

While these efforts are changing the way we age, attracting new residents, and getting people into the gym who haven’t exercised a day in their life, there are several common objections that keep many older adults out of the gym.

Let’s break them down and get to the truth about the many benefits of regular physical exercise at any age.

Objection #1: Exercise won’t prevent me from getting old. Declines that come with age are inevitable. So, there’s little point.

Getting older does not mean getting decrepit. There are people in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s who are running marathons and entering body-building competitions. The truth is that many of the things we associate with “old age” are actually the result of inactivity.

It’s true that starting around the age of 30, we steadily lose muscle mass. However, this age-related loss (sarcopenia) is only inevitable if we sit back and let it happen. Consistent strength training has been shown to not only reverse muscle loss but build additional muscle mass– no matter what your age.

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Regular physical exercise has also been shown to lower the risk for a variety of age-related illnesses and diseases, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, high blood pressure, and obesity.

Equally important to our physical health, consistent exercise has been shown to boost memory, inhibit dementia, and prevent depression. In fact, the mental benefits of exercise may be greater after the age of 65 than they were in one’s 20s or 30s.

In addition, exercise helps older adults maintain their independence and ability to engage in activities that add enjoyment to their life. The decision to stay strong means having the ability to engage in activities that keep us looking and feeling younger for much longer than most people think is possible.

Objection #2: Exercise will increase my risk of falling.

The truth is that regular exercise has been shown to dramatically REDUCE the chance of falling as we age. Do you know what DOES increase the risk of falling as we age?  Decreased strength, especially in the lower body and core.

Falls can happen for any number of reasons including injury, visual difficulties, illness, cognitive impairment, or the side effects of medication. But, often falls happen to otherwise healthy adults during normal day-to-day activities like bending over to tie a shoe or stepping over an obstacle on the floor.

Thankfully, muscle strength can be restored with strength training – if training is both consistent and challenging. Regular physical exercise that includes resistance training builds strength, stamina, and flexibility prevents loss of bone and muscle mass and improves balance. All of these benefits greatly reduce the risk of falling.

In fact, building strength and flexibility is at the heart of every effective fall prevention program.

For strength training to decrease the risk of falling in any meaningful way, moderate to high-intensity training should occur at least 3 times per week. Accurate risk assessment can offer a significant amount of motivation to get serious about building strength. This is especially true if the regular assessment is part of their training program and they can see their progress.

As much as possible, it’s also important to offer enough variety and options for seniors to choose the exercises they find the most enjoyable. Exercises like tai chi may be especially helpful in improving balance.

Granted, sometimes options are unavoidably limited. Still, chances are that options can be found in most situations. Offering seniors some control over the exercises they choose to perform can instill a greater sense of autonomy and fuel motivation.

Objection #3: I used to be in great shape, but I let myself go. I’ll never be able to get that back.

Changes in hormones, metabolism, bone density, and muscle mass mean that strength and performance levels inevitably decline with age. For seniors who were star athletes in their younger years, they’ll never perform at quite the same level as they did in their 20s and 30s.

But that certainly doesn’t mean that the same feelings of enjoyment and accomplishment aren’t possible! The motivators that propelled athletes to work harder and achieve more don’t automatically go away with age.

The key is to set goals that are age-appropriate – whatever that age might be – keeping in mind that seniors all over the world are constantly stretching the boundaries of what’s possible when it comes to physical strength and endurance. The truth is that a sedentary lifestyle takes a much greater toll on athletic ability than biological aging.

Objection #4: I’ve never been the type of person to go to the gym and now I’m too old or sick to start exercising.

You’re never, never, never too old to get moving and improve your health! For seniors in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, who have never exercised, it might seem too late to atone. The truth is those older adults who become active later in life often show even greater physical and mental improvements than younger adults. Studies have found that even people in their 90s in assisted living can increase muscle mass with resistance training.

There might even be some benefits for those who start exercising late in life. If you weren’t very active in your younger years, you’ve likely never sustained an exercise-related injury that you must now contend with. It’s also likely that you have less wear and tear on your joints. So, no excuses!  Just start easy and build up from there.

Contrary to being a reason to not exercise, the symptoms of many chronic health problems, such as arthritis, heart disease, dementia, or diabetes, can actually be significantly lessened by exercise. Seniors with chronic health problems should always check with a doctor first, but chances are, exercise will help, not hurt.

It really is never too late to start exercising and reaping the benefits.

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Objection #5: I can’t exercise because I’m disabled.

Seniors who are disabled or use wheelchairs do have certain challenges to contend with. But, there’s no reason why they can’t engage in a physical fitness plan that boosts strength, flexibility, and delivers significant cognitive benefits.

For seniors that have access to accessible resistance training machines, full-body strength training can be just as effective in combating age-related muscle loss as it is for those who are not confined to a wheelchair. Many swimming pools offer access to wheelchair users and there are adaptive exercise programs for wheelchair sports such as basketball.

But, not having access to accessible equipment or fitness centers is not a good excuse. Seated weight lifting, stretching, chair aerobics, chair yoga, and chair Tai Chi are just a few options for seniors dealing with a wide range of disabilities.

Effective, whole-body seated workouts should include movements designed to increase mobility, support cardio fitness, improve muscular strength, and expand flexibility. With regular training, these exercises can have a significant impact on health and happiness, increasing range of motion, improving muscle tone and flexibility, and promoting cardiovascular health.

Even seniors who are bedridden can find ways to exercise and should be encouraged to talk with their doctor or physical therapist about exercises that will work around their disability.

Myth #6. I’m way too weak to manage all those machines.

For seniors with access to a fitness center equipped with HUR resistance training machines, this is never a good excuse. HUR machines are equipped with a zero starting load, allowing those with extreme muscle atrophy and even injury to safely begin a strength training program.

But, even for seniors who don’t have access to HUR machines, there is no such thing as “too weak” to start. For those recovering from injury or illness, getting up and getting moving, even in the smallest way, can help manage pain and improve strength and self-confidence.

The key is to start off gently. Too weak to walk around the block? Walk out to the mailbox and back every day. Struggling to get out of your chair? Decide to get in and out of a chair 10 times each day – even if you have to ask for help.

Start where you are and start today. With time, your strength will improve and you can set higher and higher goals.