A surprising reason why more older adults aren’t hitting the gym.

We know that losing muscle mass is a natural part of aging. If left unchecked, too little muscle and too much fat leads to conditions such as obesity, osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, low back pain, and even cancer.

We also know that regular resistance training rebuilds muscle, recharges metabolism, reduces resting blood pressure, supports cardiovascular health, increases bone density, improves cognitive functioning, and combats disease. 

Without a doubt, resistance training is good for us at any age, but delivers a particularly important host of benefits to older adults. We know this. Many older adults know this. Everyone might not understand the full breadth of benefits that comes with regular strength training, but most know that it’s something they should do.

And yet, statistics show that physical inactivity rises with age.

Often, even those who were physically active when they were younger, lose interest in exercise as they get older.

Programs like Silver Sneakers have tried to reverse this trend by making visits to local gyms and recreation centers more affordable. These measures do have a positive effect, showing that reduced cost results in more older adults showing up at the gym. And yet, the US Department of Health and Human Servicesestimates that only 28-34% of adults ages 65-74, and 35-44% of adults 75 years and up, are physically active. 

Clearly, cost isn’t the only thing standing in the way of most older adults hitting the gym. What else might be going on here? If most people understand that exercise delivers numerous benefits to older adults, both physically and psychologically, why aren’t more of them active? 

What are the barriers and how can care professionals help transcend these perceptions and overcome these them?

One overlooked barrier to strength training in older adults is the equipment itself.

For many seniors, traditional strength training machines are intimidating and free weights are perceived as unsafe.

The exercise equipment found in most gyms, recreation centers and senior living facilities was designed with younger adults in mind. It’s often too challenging, intimidating, and even unsafe for older adults to use without constant assistance and supervision. And, many older adults fighting to hold onto their independence don’t relish the idea of relying on someone else’s assistance to complete every workout.

It’s a catch 22. Seniors need strength training to maintain their autonomy and independence. But, when intimidating equipment and physical limitations require constant assistance, workouts are just one more reminder of something seniors can’t do on their own.

The answer is senior focused strength training equipment.

What’s the difference between regular weight machines and equipment designed specifically for seniors? 

1. Pneumatic (air resistant) technology in senior focused machines, vs traditional weight loaded machines.

Pneumatic technology follows the natural movement of the muscle, is easy on joints, and allows for optimal muscle loading.

Pneumatic machines are the closest you can get to true isotonic exercise, where the muscles maintain the the same tension throughout the exercise. Lifting a stack of weights on a traditional strength-training machine might appear to accomplish the same thing, but appearances are deceiving.

Inertia, acceleration, and other factors (like friction from cams and pulleys) can cause the amount of force on the body to change at various points throughout the movement. In some machines, if you go quickly through the movement during the first half of the move, momentum causes the weights to become lighter, perhaps even weightless, during the second half of the motion. With pneumatic resistance, no matter how fast you move, the resistance stays the same.

The result: A more consistent and controlled resistance compared to free weights or weight machines. In addition, Pneumatic resistance follows the natural movement of the muscle and is easy on joints and muscles. For older adults, this makes training safer, easier to use, and more effective at both low and high movement speeds than weight loaded machines.

Pneumatic technology provides optimal muscle loading, allowing seniors to train hard while maintaining a low risk of injury.

One of our residents found it difficult to be consistent with an exercise program. She started training on the HUR equipment and hasn't looked back. After returning from a cruise, she came into the fitness center and thanked us because she kept up with their excursion groups - something she knows she wouldn't have been able to do before.”Debbie is the Fitness Coordinator at Canterbury Woods

2. Senior focused machines have the option to begin with zero starting load and increase resistance in .25 lb increments, vs 1, 5, and 10-pound increases in traditional machines.

For seniors who are new to strength training, using a machine with zero starting load is considerably safer than even the lowest weight setting on traditional machines. Zero starting load also allows people recovering from injury to begin rehabilitative therapy sooner, yielding faster results.

It’s also important that older adults continue to challenge themselves by increasing the level of resistance, but bumping up the weight too quickly can cause injury. Senior focused equipment provides controlled, small incremental resistance of just .25 pounds at a time. This allows seniors to keep moving forward in their workouts, maintaining motivation and momentum.

Unlike traditional weight machines, air resistance allows older adults to start off with zero resistance and increase resistance by 1/4 pound increments. 

3. Automatic, programed adjustments of senior focused machines, vs manual adjustments of traditional equipment.

“When we first installed the HUR equipment I remember seeing the look of fear in some of our residents' eyes.  I could tell they were thinking, ‘Wow, this equipment is way too high tech for me.’ It took about 5 minutes of training before they realized how user friendly the equipment is.”Shannonthe Wellness Director at Presbyterian Village North

Most traditional weight machines require several adjustments before each use. To maintain proper form and train safely, adjustments must be made to the seat height, back support, resistance level, and anything else necessary to fit the machine to the person using it. These adjustments can be difficult to many older adults, especially those recovering from injuries or in a wheelchair.

Senior focused equipment adjusts automatically according to pre-programed specifications. HUR SmartTouch technology requires only the swipe of a wrist band to adjust each variable of the machine to the user. Automatic adjustments not only make independent training more accessible and safer, it allows the user to move on and off the machine with ease.

Automatic adjustments can also build confidence. Not knowing how, or not being able, to adjust a machine can be intimidating and embarrassing. No one likes feeling incompetent or helpless. When senior focused equipment is outfitted with SmartTouch technology, trainers and other care professionals can program the machines to each users’ specifications, eliminating the need to make adjustments on their own later on.

“We chose the HUR equipment because we thought it would increase participation in the gym - and it certainly has! The fact that the HUR equipment is so user-friendly allows our members to work out independently, which has been empowering for the members and our staff.  Members aren't intimidated by the machines because the weight and resistance changes to their specific needs, allowing them to focus on proper form. Now, members can come at their leisure as they don't require constant supervision. This frees up our team to offer new classes and personal training.”-Carmine is the Fitness Manager at Peconic Landing

4. Pre-programed workouts and automatic performance tracking of senior focused equipment vs paper instruction sheets and manual tracking.

HUR SmartTouch technology allows trainers to program a training plan for each user. Once this is done, users swipe their wristband and their unique program displays on a touchscreen, guiding them through each movement and even counting their reps. The machine lets them know when it’s time to move on to the next exercise, makes automatic resistance increases when they reach milestones, and displays their progress. 

With traditional machines, trainers have few options other than paper for providing clients with a training plan. Users must track their own progress and are susceptible to the discouragement that can crop up when progress isn’t clear.

The HUR equipment is easy to use, only takes about 15 minutes to move through the entire circuit, and the residents are able to see the results. Since it’s installation, we've had a 75% increase in residents using the fitness center! We have residents in their 60's and mid 90's using the HUR equipment because it really is accessible to everyone.  Every day I hear, "I am so grateful for this equipment!"Jen DeLeonardis, Fitness & Wellness Director at Fuller Village

Addressing the issue of physical inactivity in older adults is complex.

Two of the most impactful things senior living facilities can do to increase gym participation is focus on education and the experience of training itself. Seniors must first understand the many benefits of strength training and how workouts can have a direct impact on their quality of life. But, even with this understanding, if the process of working out is intimidating or cumbersome, it’s unlikely they’ll stick with a regular routine.