Burning Off the Years

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After a briskly paced half-hour on the treadmills at their health club, Nina Crugnola, 80, and her husband Tony, 79, are a little flushed. So before heading off for phase two of their workout--the weight machines--they take a moment to wipe away the sweat, adjust their headsets and instruct a fellow septuagenarian on how to use a hip abductor. "A year ago, I didn't think I'd ever learn how to work these machines, let alone stay on the treadmill without falling off," says Nina. "But I've had osteoporosis, he's had a blocked ventricle, and you know, this keeps everything going good."

The health club at which the Crugnolas work out four times a week is HealthFit, a pioneering new facility in Needham, Mass., that caters exclusively to women and seniors. During daytime hours, seniors make up about 80% of the clientele. With its welcoming staff, accessible layout, gleaming air-pressurized weight machines, original art that changes every few months and Big-Band music at a palatable roar, HealthFit has won over 650 fanatically loyal members in its first year. Its founder, John Atwood, 48, spent 25 years in the industry before realizing that he was sick of helping "the already fit get a little fitter. With seniors, fitness makes a real difference."

Getting sweaty on golf courses and in senior sports leagues is nothing new for adults 65 and over. But as recent research has extolled the benefits of regular, even intense, exercise, more than 5 million members of today's burgeoning cadre of seniors are running, bicep curling, sometimes even kickboxing, in health clubs up to five times a week. And with the supervision of good trainers, they are going for more burn than ever.

The trend has won the attention of a few HMOs, federal and state government officials and gym-equipment manufacturers--which are now marketing more air-pressurized weight machines with larger digital displays. Health clubs--traditional havens for beefy bodybuilders but more recently shifting to an emphasis on overall wellness--are beginning to respond. This year some 65% of health clubs offer some sort of senior-fitness program, up from 32% 10 years ago, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, the trade association for health clubs. Trainers say seniors are often their most eager, dedicated and appreciative clients. And club owners find they have the flexibility to fill the workout rooms during the midday hours when health clubs are traditionally dead. At ihrsa's annual conference last month, the keynote speech focused on two new critical demographics to target: women and seniors.

All the excitement over senior fitness bodes best, of course, for seniors themselves, especially for those 70 and older. According to physiologists, strength and flexibility can mean the difference between independently handling everyday activities like changing a light bulb and sitting on the sofa, scared. "There is no pharmacological intervention that can restore people to youthful levels like a well-designed fitness program," says William Evans, professor of geriatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. "Seniors have lost the most muscle strength and fitness, and that's largely because of inactivity. With exercise, you can restore a 70-year-old to a 20-year-old's strength. Women can put off osteoporosis. Exercise helps control blood pressure and cholesterol. It's also a big factor in combating depression."

By all accounts, a good program should include a combination of cardio (which can lessen the effects of, even help fend off, chronic ailments like diabetes and heart disease) and strength training (for balance, flexibility and range of motion). But for the previously sedentary, the chest presses and leg extensions can be critical in getting strong enough to do cardio at all. And training doesn't have to be done on weight machines. For the very frail, weight training can be as simple as raising a leg to learn balance.

Just a few years back, the idea that gray-haired folks could build up lost bone and muscle strength by pumping iron was unheard of. Yet several landmark studies done at Tufts University in the late '80s and mid-'90s revealed that seniors had the most to gain from such activity. A particularly astounding 1995 study by Maria Fiatarone, overseen by Evans, showed that with a high-intensity regimen, even the oldest and frailest nursing-home residents, ages 86 to 96, tripled their muscle strength and greatly improved their balance and flexibility. All performed everyday tasks, like opening jars and getting up out of chairs, more easily. Some abandoned their canes and walkers.

Even for more youthful seniors, who are often afraid of life-altering falls, working out can have dramatic effects. Many say they have resumed favorite activities because of a newfound physical confidence. Others cite mental pluses: sharper memories, better sleep and happier moods. Some of the mood lifting comes from good old-fashioned camaraderie. "It's so nice here, you say hi, catch up," says HealthFit regular Barbara Yardley, 78, who recently hiked 33 miles in New Zealand. "There's always something going on."

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