Best Boomer Workouts

By Rebecca Ruiz, Forbes.com - Health & Fitness
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Forget that seven-iron. These days, boomers are busting out the boxing gloves and yoga mats.

That's because, despite many now coming into their 60s, the boomer generation has yet to slow down. In fact, many are undeterred by aging and are taking on one physical challenge after another, from endurance races to judo to pool diving. There’s even anecdotal evidence that the wisdom of age can offer a competitive advantage where strategy and pacing are concerned.

Boomers are also flocking to gyms at higher rates than the rest of the population. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, the number of gym members over the age of 55 reached 8 million in 2005, a 314% increase since 1990. Membership among 18- to 34-year-olds over the same time period increased by only 38.7%.

Among the fitness centers catering to them is the YMCA, which also saw its membership among those between 55 and 64 grow noticeably between 2002 and 2005. In response, many branches created boomer-friendly programming for the country’s roughly 78 million adults born between 1946 and 1964.

Classes such as "Forever Strong" and "Baby Boomers and Beyond" are “really about quality of life, not about how big your muscles are,” says Nancy Gildersleeve, a wellness director at the Greater Glenville Family YMCA in the Albany, New York, area. “It’s functional training that helps you keep up with your grandkids and reach high up in the cabinets.”

Whether you’re aiming to do that, tone flabby muscles or start training for a marathon, you can achieve the best workout by knowing the benefits of different forms of exercise, understanding which areas to emphasize and learning how to avoid injury.

Boomer Benefits

From better balance to preventing chronic disease, the benefits of exercise for baby boomers are numerous.

“As we get older, maintenance of muscle strength is important,” says Dr. William Haskell of the Stanford School of Medicine. Haskell also led the group that recently revised the American College of Sports Medicine’s physical activity recommendations.

In addition to cardiovascular exercise, Haskell advises older adults to develop a two-day-a-week strength training regimen. In its 40s, the body begins losing a quarter pound of muscle per year, which can increase during periods of low physical activity. Muscle strength helps maintain bone heath and has been linked to the prevention of Type II diabetes. Strong muscles also affect balance, joint health and stability and weight maintenance. Increased percentage of muscle creates a greater resting energy, which helps the body burn more calories throughout the day.

Regular physical activity can also ward off heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in America. Since your risk increases with age, it’s important to get consistent, effective exercise.

Fine-Tune Focus

Arleen Cauchi, a personal trainer and owner of the California gym Boomer Fitness, has created customized workouts for older adults. The majority of her members are in their 50s, and the oldest is 94. Her advice to members is to resist the allure of the cardio machines, which, while simple and easy, lead some to neglect their muscles. Instead, boomers should focus on developing strength, power and flexibility in addition to cardio.

The first step is to elevate your heart rate throughout the week at least 20 minutes a day on at least three days. Then add flexibility and strength training exercises. Remember to change the emphasis to different muscle groups every two weeks in order to avoid a plateau in your progress as well as overuse, which can cause an injury.

Dr. Sheldon Zinberg, the founder of Nifty After Fifty, a California gym chain that caters to boomers, emphasizes a holistic approach to exercise. In combination with activities that improve balance, flexibility, strength and endurance, Zinberg offers his members a mental workout in a “brain gym” that houses computers that challenge memory and problem solving abilities.

“We’ve discovered that we can delay, prevent or even reverse some of the aspects of aging,” Zinberg says of his multidimensional approach.

Avoiding Injury

That may be true, but older adults need to beware of “boomeritis,” a condition that plagues those who have exceeded their limits and as a result experienced knee, hip, ligament, tendon and fracture problems.

Dr. Sean McCance, co-director of Spinal Surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City frequently treats patients with over-use injuries.

“I see the typical baby boomer who’s been working hard hours, is a little overweight and overstressed,” he says. “On the weekend, they have a chance to do a big workout, and they blow something out.”

McCance’s advice is to strengthen the core muscles, which then better protect the back from injury. Skipping a good stretch before a workout is a major mistake, he says. An older body has already experienced a certain level of degeneration so it’s vital to get properly warmed up. Ultimately, he says, only put demands on the body that are age-appropriate, and see a doctor when experiencing persistent aches or pains.

“More and more people have a young, aggressive mentality,” he says. But injury can be avoided by “working within limits and gradually building up.”

In Pictures: Best Boomer Workouts

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