Silver Sneakers

Fitness is medicine in older adults, building health & friendships

At about 9 a.m. on most weekday mornings, Susan and Rick Shotwell get together with a few friends for coffee. There are anywhere between five and 15 guys and gals in their 70s sharing stories, laughing and leaning in for a little gossip. At first glance, the scene would be more reminiscent of a coffee shop or diner, but this is the Billings Family YMCA, and these seniors are getting together for a workout before their coffee.

“Someone always brings a little snack and the coffee is free,” says Berte Heath, a fitness instructor there.

Heath teaches classes designed for older adults five mornings a week. She’s 71 and has been teaching at the “Y” for the past six years. Her classes include cardio workouts, strength training, Zumba Gold and yoga. They are popular among the more than 700 YMCA members who are over the age of 65. The workouts are great but, according to Heath, coffeetime — as it’s come to be known — is just as important.

Coffeetime offers an opportunity to connect, and for some people, it’s the only time of day they are social with others. Everyone shares the universal aches and pains of getting older, as well as the joy and heartaches and that come along later in life.

“It’s just good for the soul,” says Susan Shotwell.

Heath’s classes look a lot like other fitness classes available at the YMCA, except they’re all low-impact, and she offers participants ways they can modify parts of the workout if they have limitations and can’t quite to do the exercises. The music is geared toward the tastes of the older generation with fewer beats per minute.

“I want to be sure it’s doable and they can achieve success from the very beginning,” Heath says.

Across downtown, Ruth Omland teaches fitness classes at the Billings Community & Senior Center. Like Heath, she designs workouts to meet the needs of older adults, and her lineup includes some chair classes, where participants sit through much of the workout and use the chair for balance when standing. She also offers a six-week Moderate Motion class for people who might have significant limitations but are looking to start an exercise routine.

No matter where seniors choose to work out, fitness classes are aimed at building and maintaining flexibility, strength, balance and range of motion.

“It’s a matter of quality of life,” Omland says. “If you’re not moving, your ability to move will be diminished.”

Omland has always been interested in physical fitness, and when she was an elementary school teacher, she could be found jogging the perimeter of the gym on her lunch break. In that era, it was unusual for a woman to be dedicated to fitness, but Ruth wasn’t going to give up.

“It just got into my blood and under my skin,” Ruth says.

Her passion came to life when she and her husband retired in Billings and she was able to pursue training for various certifications to teach fitness courses. At 78, she leads classes most days at the senior center and also teaches at Sweetwater Retirement Community, where her oldest participant is 95.

Your attitude changes as you get older, Omland says. For people in their 30s and 40s, the priorities were performance and results. Many are motivated by a goal to lose weight or tone up. In later years, other motivators come into play. Older people are looking to have fun, to make friends and get out of the house for a while.

“My students are thinking, ‘I’ll do what I can, stop when it hurts, and spend some time with my friends,’” Omland says.

Many great friendships have been forged in her classes, and Omland says participants look out for one another, call to check in when someone misses a class, and meet outside of the class for other social activities.

Most senior fitness classes are attended by women. That’s primarily because women typically outlive men, but it’s also due to the social aspects of fitness classes. Women are joiners, Omland says. While men are more likely to drop in at the fitness center and use a treadmill, women want more connection. They’re also more likely to take a lighthearted approach to fitness.

“You don’t have to look great in spandex to join, and you don’t have to worry about missing a step – that’s part of the fun. We all miss a step now and then,” Omland says.

In addition to building and maintaining flexibility, strength, balance and range of motion, regular exercise is good for heart health, can increase bone density, and ease symptoms of depression. Recent studies even suggest that regular exercise can reduce the risk of developing dementia, and improved physical fitness also allows older adults to maintain their independence longer.

“I want people to go into their older years and still be able to function at their best,” Heath says. “That’s what I want for myself too.”


Get fit with fellow seniors

Check with your doctor to find out what limitations you may have, and what precautions you should take when exercising. Always follow your doctor’s advice.

Look for a low-impact beginner’s class or a class designed for seniors. Most local gyms have senior-specific classes, and the Billings Community & Senior Center offers free classes.

If fitness classes aren’t your thing, consider working with a personal trainer to design a safe and reasonable fitness routine that works for you.

Keep an open mind. Most of the time, you can do more than you think you can, and it may take time to settle into a routine before you feel comfortable.

Bring a friend! You’ll be more likely to commit long-term if you have someone cheering you on who you are cheering for too.

Consider setting a few simple goals for yourself. What do you hope to gain and what steps are you taking to get there? If you write down your goals you’re more likely to reach them.

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