Tips for Wellness Professionals Working with Older Adults

As every wellness professional working with the senior population knows, regular exercise is increasingly more important as we age. With physical fitness, there’s no such thing as “Been there, done that.”Exercise isn’t something we retire from or perceive as something we did when we were younger.

Amongst other things, regular exercise that includes a mix of cardio and strength training reduces risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, obesity, colon cancer, and breast cancer. It decreases the risk of falls and fall-related injuries, and increases cognitive functioning.

Like all of us, older adults probably already know that exercise is good for their health. What might be lacking is the motivation, resources, and encouragement to make it a regular part of their life. 

Here are a few tips for how to encourage seniors to get in shape and stay fit at any age.

1. We are social creatures. For many seniors, having someone to exercise with makes it more enjoyable and provides essential accountability. After all, it’s harder to just not show up at the gym when we know there is someone waiting for us.  But, for many older adults, having a workout partner serves a deeper purpose than ensuring they’ll follow through and show up at the gym on a consistent basis. Many seniors choose to live in senior living communities, or join a senior center, primarily because they are looking for strong social connections and the gym can be one more place to fulfill social needs. 

One of the main reasons our residents choose to be here is for the social connection. If they aren’t physically well and can’t participate in the community, they begin to feel lonely and depressed. This emotional state can cause them to become more sedentary, causing further physical decline. It’s a vicious cycle. My goal is to do everything I can to prevent the decline in the first place, and that means making sure they get into the fitness center to train.” - Melissa Smith, Activities Director, Legacy at Forest Ridge

2. Schedule it. Scheduling exercise sessions directly into individuals’ social calendars is an effective way to make exercise a habit, especially for seniors who are just starting an exercise program. For most of us, brushing our teeth or taking a shower aren’t things we need to schedule into our day because they are habitual – they are simply tasks that we believe to be necessary to day-to-day life.

That’s the goal of an exercise routine – to make it as habitual as everything else we do to take care of ourselves. But, creating the habit in the first place often requires consistent scheduling. 

Denise Kuechenmeister, the Director of Community Life at All Saints Senior Living, says that scheduling is a key component of consistent participation in her community’s wellness program. At All Saints, they go so far as to go to each resident’s home before a scheduled session to remind them about it and accompany them to the gym.

“Nine times out of ten our residents are not going to visit the gym regularly on their own”, says Denise. “So, we schedule it on their calendar and then support their follow through and progress.” 

3. Identify activities that they enjoy and connect those activities to their big WHY. 

Just like everyone at any age, older adults are more likely to exercise if they enjoy it. Creating a program full of activities that they are interested in will increase the chances of their continued participation no matter what. 

But, as Dawn Mans, Wellness Connection Coordinator for Three Pillar Senior Living told us, if you really want to boost participation levels, help seniors find their big WHY– the reason that will motivate them to come into the gym over and over again.

“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,” explains Dawn.  “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.”

When seniors are able to participate in exercise activities that they enjoy, AND understand exactly how exercise supports the other things in their life that they love to do, such as playing with their grand kids or taking the next trip, they are much more likely show up and give it their best effort.

4. Start slowly and build intensity and endurance gradually.

It’s important to keep workouts challenging, but increasing intensity and endurance dramatically can be dangerous and demotivating.

HUR Strength Training Equipment is engineered with zero starting load and the option to automatically increase in .25 lb increments when seniors reach a plateau. The zero-starting load allows those who are new to strength training or recovering from injury a way to get started building the exercise habit without the danger of over exertion. But, the gradual automatic increases in resistance are especially important in maintain motivation. 

Over time, seniors who are engaged in a regular strength training routine are inevitably getting stronger – but, if gains in strength are happening gradually, they may not feel like they are making progress. HUR machines with SmartTouch technology display each person’s progress in real time, so individuals can see where they started – resistance level and number of reps – and how far they’ve come. Being able to see their progress represented visually with graphs and numbers is very motivating for many older adults.

5. Support their desire to exercise with a personalized training program.

It takes great courage to embrace a new exercise routine at any age. There are so many options and questions. How often should they exercise and for how long? Should they take a class? Should they focus on cardio or strength training or both? If there are exercise machines available to them how do they use them?

Not knowing where or how to start can quickly become a reason to not start at all, which is why it’s so important for many seniors to have a trainer create a personal training program for them. In fact, a personal training program that takes into account their overall health, lifestyle, interests, and goals is one of the greatest motivators for getting started with a regular exercise routine.

If you are a trainer at a Senior Living Community, you might even consider creating a personal training program that requires an extra fee. That’s what they’re doing at Paradise Valley Estates, and it’s not only raising money for their wellness program, the extra fee actually serves as a strong motivator for seniors to get to the gym.

“At first, our residents were resistant to the additional fee.  They were conditioned to believe that one fee should cover everything on campus.  We worked hard to educate them about the value of personal training and how the extra fee would allow us to create a better program for them. As it turns out, we believe that the extra fee is one of the key reasons for the program's success. Residents want to get their money's worth, and so they work harder and train more consistently.  Residents are happy, and spread the word like wildfire. More personal training clients allow us to improve the program even more.  It's a cyclical win-win situation for everyone.”