Mile High Pilates and Yoga
For the past 6 months or so I have been leading exercise classes at two local assisted living facilities for older adults. Mostly we sit in chairs, move arms and legs, add in some stretching and do simple strength-building exercises. An endurance factor is also included as most of the exercises involve a number of repetitions. At first this was tricky for many of the participants. It had been so long since they had moved this way that they found it difficult to follow along. There is a certain degree of cognitive impairment in some participants that may make understanding the instructions unclear. Hearing loss can also present a problem with following instructions. But as we have continued practicing over time I have been surprised to see how little cognitive issues actually affect performance. In fact, a participant with diagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease participated in a recent class and had no trouble mimicking the movements at all. The more we practice, the easier it is for participants to successfully complete the class. A further surprise has been how much change I’ve seen even though these classes are only held once per week. I had been told that the participants would not remember what we had done within a short period of time after each class ended. That may be true, but there is no denying that over time they have learned the moves and shown increased ability to perform them. We can now string multiple moves together (e.g. bicep curl and overhead press) and even incorporate some aerobic movements like lifting opposite arm with opposite leg. A few can now do some standing exercises and most at least try to get out of their chairs without using their arms.
Although this is a small population making generalizations difficult, it has also been interesting to me to see that the majority of mobility limitations seem to be in the shoulders, not the knees, legs or hips. Let this be a lesson to those of you who spend significant amounts of your day hunched over computers or steering wheels ignoring all those pains in your neck and upper back. For many of us the muscles in our upper backs and cervical spines (neck region) have become so weak that imbalances in muscle function have been created. Often this manifests as pain in the lower back due to the increased load those muscles must absorb. But the effects can also extend to the hips and leg muscles. Our bodies are an amazingly complex construction of interrelated systems that depend on each other. We need all of our body parts to work in together in concert for optimum function. The longer we let these imbalances persist, the more widespread the stress becomes.
But here’s the good news: it’s never too late to stop the decline and even begin to turn this around. According to the National Institute on Aging “For the most part, when older people lose their ability to do things on their own, it doesn’t happen just because they have aged. More likely, it is because they have become inactive.” We assume that disability and pain are part of the aging process. Research is now showing that this is not necessarily the case. An article in Medpage Today cites a study in which even seniors with some mobility disabilities who participated in a regular exercise program were “more likely to maintain their ability to get up and move around”.
None of us can stop the aging process. It begins at the moment of birth and seems to accelerate with the passage of time. Modern public health improvements have increased human life expectancy. As a result, quality of life has become an increasingly important consideration. It’s one thing to live for 90 or 100 years but if you can’t experience the simple pleasures of life those years can be more of a burden than a blessing. Movement is so important to overall health and well-being. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to make a difference and experience benefits. A little goes a long way. But it does take motivation and that can be a struggle. It’s amazing how easy it is for some of us to come up with all kinds of reasons not to exercise. Think of every time you’ve made a resolution to move more and quickly got derailed by one thing or another. Everything that gets in the way becomes more important. But remember that with every excuse you are putting your health on the back burner. You may think you’re getting away with the neglect, but it will catch up to you eventually. Medications can only go so far. At some point we need to take responsibility for our own bodies. Although aging will happen no matter what we do, most of us can improve our mobility at every age.
Fitness has been defined as “the ability to life your life without feeling fatigued.” This may seem like a tall order to some of you. But if you think of minimizing fatigue rather than eliminating it, the concept becomes a realistic goal. The next step then is to eliminate the barriers that you construct for yourself. Examine those barriers and you may find that they are really based in fear – mostly fear that you won’t be able to live up to your own (or some else’s) expectations. Throughout these blog posts I have stressed the need to let go of those fears and all expectations and take that first dangerous step in the direction of the unknown. Dangle the potential benefits in front of you like the proverbial carrot. Start slow and back off. Even 5 minutes of walking is a great start! But then keep at it. Five minutes a day can lead to 10 minutes and so on. Getting started is the hard part. After that it’s all about practice. Be patient and kind to yourself. Eventually you will see the difference. Remember all those seniors. If they can improve, so can you.