Staying fit and flexible beyond 50

 Fitness secret: Esther Robinson, 93, (left) and DeEtte Sauer, 69, at an athletic club in Houston. Sauer is a medal-winning senior swimmer and Robinson likes to hit the gym for the weights, but also enjoys dancing. APShe was morbidly obese, her heart disease so serious a doctor warned her to expect “an event at any time”. Eaten up by her marketing career, struggling to raise three kids, she smoked, drank and never, ever exercised.

Sauer remembers a vacation when—at 5-foot-5 and 230 pounds—she couldn’t make it onto a small boat for a day out with her family. “That is when it hit me. I was an elected cripple. I had done it to myself.”

She got busy, slowly shedding the weight through sensible eating and exercise. She began to walk around her Houston neighbourhood, then she discovered the pool. Now 69, the woman who once had a supermom complex is a competitive, medal-winning senior swimmer.

“It literally saved my life,” Sauer said, adding that her best event is the butterfly—a stroke she learned at age 62.

To trainers with lots of clients well beyond 50, Sauer is the holy grail, somebody who works hard and efficiently, taking care to avoid injury while maintaining motivation, strength and endurance through careful workouts. Getting fit later in life is one thing, they said, but staying that way at 60, 70 and 80 is another.

“Going from running to walking, going from the treadmill to the elliptical as we age. It can be really frustrating, mentally debilitating,” said Chris Freytag, a yoga and Pilates instructor.

“Even for me. I’m 45 and say oh god, I can just see it coming. There’s going to be some wear and tear. That doesn’t mean I have to give up, but I have to make some changes.”
Back, hips, knees, balance, cardio—all can be trouble spots and big blows to a positive attitude for seniors, said Freytag and fitness expert Denise Austin.

Flexibility

Pilates and yoga are great ways to stay strong and flexible beyond 50 because both can be easily modified, the experts said. “Your spine is your lifeline. Keep it healthy, keep it strong. As we age we lose flexibility and it is really important to our tendons and ligaments to stay pliable and keep all the fluids in our joints going,” Austin said.

She suggests increasing floor work to take pressure off the knees. Can’t touch your toes anymore? Use an elastic band for the same stretch, or to replace weight training that might grow dangerous.

Taking the time to stretch, to reopen joints and muscles after a workout, is increasingly important as we age —particularly crucial at 60, 70 or older, Freytag said.

Warming up before a workout is key to balance. For running seniors, Austin suggests five minutes of walking before getting into a gradual run, or intervals of walking and running. Runners may need to balance workouts with more strength training and stretching to avoid hip and knee problems. Add five minutes of strength training and five minutes of stretching, Austin suggests.

Balance issues don’t have to put an end to staying fit. Work out in a chair or use one to lean on if you are feeling unsteady.

Cardio

With heart disease stalking both men and women, aging doesn’t have to mean the end to a decent cardio workout.

Riding a bicycle is easier on the hips than running, for instance. Trim back on running to a couple of days a week and supplement on the bike.

For runners who can’t bring themselves to give it up, run slower, walk and run, or cross-train. She suggests cardio work four days a week but only at high energy twice in that period. Dancing is also a good way to get the heart rate up, Austin said. “It changes movements and it changes your muscle twitchings.”

At 93, Esther Robinson wouldn’t give up her life of fitness for anything. Active all her life, she still hits her local gym (“I like to bench press”), but dancing is something she can enjoy with others.

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