Regular exercise is important for everybody who wants a stronger heart and overall better health, but physical activity is especially important for seniors.
Case in point: Howard Kleinberg, who needed bypass surgery in 2004.
“I wasn’t in good shape. I walked in the park but I had angina,” said Kleinberg, who is now 80. “I was on a safari in Botswana in Africa and I started not feeling well. I went to see a doctor and they told me to go home right away.”
After the surgery at South Miami Hospital, and a few weeks of difficult recovery, Kleinberg entered the institution’s Cardiac Rehabilitation Center. Under the watchful eye of medical staff he began using a treadmill, elliptical machine and weights.
The weeks turned into months, and the months into years. In his eighth year as a patient there, he visits three times a week for two-hour workouts.
“It grew and grew and grew. I just thought it was the best thing in the world for me,” said Kleinberg, a former history columnist for The Miami Herald. “I haven’t had any heart problems since. I had a stress test about a month ago and I’m just fine.”
For seniors in South Florida, there are plenty of options for improving physical fitness, from joining a hospital fitness center to simply walking regularly inside an air-conditioned mall. Many hospitals offer low-cost classes, such as yoga and line dancing exclusively for seniors.
Experts recommend regular cardiac workouts to help lower the blood pressure and heart rate. Seniors should consider routines that improve balance and flexibility, strengthen the abdominal core and increase overall muscle mass.
“As people age and don’t activate certain muscles, they lose that muscle mass and bone strength,” said Reggie LaRoche, an exercise physiologist and supervisor of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at South Miami Hospital. “It’s important to improve muscle strength because life tends to be more challenging and intimidating as we age. A senior may see a staircase and feel uncomfortable, which causes them to be less active.”
Exercise offers another positive benefit for seniors: a reduced risk of depression. Some research, including a 2000 study at Duke University, has found that regular exercise can be as effective as anti-depressant drugs in treating depression in elderly patients.
At the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall, fitness center director Meg McCarthy highlighted the social aspect of group exercise classes for the elderly. About 1,000 seniors take exercise classes — which include one that is primarily seated and yoga — through the health insurance based program, SilverSneakers. The program has tripled in size since it first started at the community center four years ago. Program participants also have access to other fitness center amenities, including a sauna and Jacuzzi, once they sign up.
“When seniors retire, they don’t always have anywhere to go or a schedule to keep anymore so depression is a common component,” said McCarthy. “Having a place to come to as a set class is wonderful because it allows them to establish a routine ... It becomes not only about the physical activity, but about the socialization.”
A key component to improving social ties at the community center is a coffee lounge, where Silver-Sneakers participants routinely meet before or after class to catch up, said McCarthy.
“They visit, talk about the day, and get used to who is here on what day for what class,” she said. “If you miss a class, we’re going to wonder where you are. It’s so much more than come in and do your class and leave.”
The SilverSneakers program is also offered at the Betty T. Ferguson Recreation Complex in Miami Gardens. The national program was designed exclusively for older adults who can benefit through Medicare health plans, Medicare Supplement carriers and group retiree plans.
At Memorial Healthcare System in Hollywood, about 10,000 seniors participate in the Senior Partners community programming. Classes, held both in Hollywood and Hallandale Beach, include stretching, ballroom dancing and tai chi. The hospital system developed the concept more than a decade ago as a low-cost preventative health option for those who are 50 and older.
“We do offer specialty geriatric programs, rehabilitation programs, an adult day care center at Memorial, but Senior Partners looks at what you can do to improve your health in the long run and enjoy yourself at the same time,” said Steve Sampere, director of community services for Memorial. “We have a science-based program on balance because slips and falls are an important issue as you grow older.”
Memorial also offers a mall walker program for groups of seniors who walk laps at area malls before they open.
Carol Mathews, 82, has been an active participant since the program arrived at Pembroke Lake Mall two decades ago. Twice a week, she arrives at the mall at 8:30 a.m. to walk a brisk mile before meeting her friends at the food court for coffee or tea.
“I like the idea of walking in a cool, comfortable and safe environment,” she said. “I used to walk outside, but sometimes it can get too hot or rainy.”
Mathews also takes a tai chi class at the Southwest Focal Point Senior Center in Pembroke Pines to improve her balance and blood circulation. She said she wants to keep active for years to come.
“I have no heart problems, and no aches and pains like a lot of people my age complain about,” she said.