Medically Based Fitness Boosts Seniors' Health and Quality of Life

Sure, time flies when you're having fun. But when the fun catches up ... look out.

During your 20s, 30s, 40s and now often into your 50s and 60s, life clips along at breakneck speed. Something usually has to give. Often, this something is exercise.

Then, reaching our 50s, with kids grown and retirement looming, we find with dismay that our stamina and vigor have been replaced by creaky joints and blurry vision. For some of us, the only youthful characteristic we have left is the reckless abandon with which we accumulate prescriptions.

Exercise-deficient lifestyles contribute to many age-related medical conditions starting with high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and osteoporosis. "As they age, people decrease muscle use. Unfortunately, older adults lose strength three times as quickly as they can gain it back," says physical therapist Danielle Heinrichs Medically Based Fitness (MBF), a medically-based exercise therapy clinic in Longmont, Colo., that largely serves an over-50 clientele. "So those bedridden for several weeks often experience significant deconditioning — sometimes to the point where ordinary tasks like getting in or out of chairs becomes difficult."

But many national medical studies show that exercise programs begun at any age offer innumerable benefits including increased metabolism, blood-glucose management, improved heart function and blood flow as well as improved strength, balance and mental acuity.

Aging frequently erodes independence as illness and physical decline require caregivers, whether family or hired, to take over responsibility for everyday tasks. Studies have shown that in addition to building up strength, which facilitates the ability to return to daily chores, exercise also promotes endorphin release and higher brain oxygen levels, which help counteract the depression prevalent in older people whove experienced declining health or loss of mobility. Organized exercise or a daily walking regime enlarges social networks and can become a secondary factor in combating depression.

"Here, the social aspect has as much benefit as the strength and cardiovascular training," says MBF Director Marci Smith. "People visit our facility several times each week and see the same six to 10 people each time. Often, they see their therapists and workout friends more frequently than family members."

"Seeing peers actively coping with serious health problems or watching someone a decade older move dedicatedly through an exercise routine motivates many clients," Smith says.


"I don't want to go back where I was physically"

At 86, MBF client Maggie Miller deals with congestive heart failure. Her heart doesn't pump as strongly as it should, which means simple efforts often tire her. Her progressive decrease in physical functionality and related weakness meant that a struggle with pneumonia several years ago required an extended hospital visit and long recovery time at home. The lengthy bed rest left Miller so weak she had difficulty walking upon recovery.

Miller's doctor prescribed an exercise therapy program of strength and balance training mixed with stationary bike riding for cardiovascular benefits. Miller now gets in and out of chairs easily. Improved balance allows her more control while she's walking, so she no longer needs a walker at home.

"I dread the balancing exercises," says Miller, "but I don't want to go back where I was physically. It used to take me four or five tries to get out of a chair and I always needed a walker, including at home."

Exercise therapy for chronically ill patients generally qualifies for Medicare coverage. Once a patient's improvement plateaus, Medicare will no longer pay; but the sense of well-being and accomplishment often propels exercise program graduates forward.


"Back where I'd started before the operation"

Gilbert Adolfson, an 80-year old retired economist and MBF client, says he's currently in the best shape of his life. After a succession of heart bypass surgeries and a recent kidney removal, Adolfson now strength-trains twice weekly and walks or swims the other three weekdays, taking weekends off.

"After my kidney operation, Medicare paid for a year of exercise therapy. After that I only stopped my exercise program once for a week. At the week's end, I found my fitness was back where I'd started before the kidney operation," says Adolfson. "So now I know to keep it up permanently."

As the "greatest generation" approaches life's final stretch, it again leads the nation. Retired boomers will represent 20 percent of the population by 2010. As this generation helps refine contemporary geriatric research, it will also contribute a wealth of knowledge about the body's response to aging and how to live healthier, fitter, longer.


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