Staying Active: A Lifetime of Fitness
As a tap dance instructor for over 10 years who mainly teaches children and teenagers, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a handful of people above college age. The majority of my students have been dancing since around age three. In the last year or so however, I’ve seen more and more interest in tap dancing from adults over the age of 50. Some of these people studied dance briefly as children, but many, like the delightful 93-year-old I once taught, are learning the art for the first time. They all have different reasons and goals for starting and have expressed relief and joy at finding it easy to engage in a variety of physical activities.
Awareness of the importance of physical activity is increasing, and so are program options. From gyms to dance studios, from park districts to YMCAs and hospital-affiliated fitness centers, classes and programs tailored towards retired people, or those approaching retirement, abound. Some popular physical activities and fitness classes among older adults today include yoga, Tai Chi, pickleball, ballet barre workouts, dance-inspired aerobics, Zumba, and water fitness.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that people 65 years old and above (with no physical or health limitations as directed by medical professionals) should participate in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity a week. For additional benefits, the WHO recommends that older adults raise their time spent in weekly moderate-level physical activities to 300 minutes, or vigorous-intensity activities to 150 minutes. Many organizations also recommend that aerobic activities should be done for at least 20 minutes consecutively.
The WHO and CDC recommend older adults also include two or more days a week of muscle-strengthening activities that work all major muscle groups. Stated benefits of combined weight bearing and aerobic exercise include improving cardiovascular and respiratory fitness, bone health, and functional physical ability including balance and joint mobility. Following these recommendations also lowers people’s risk of falls, non-communicable disease, depression, and cognitive decline.
To some, the amount of physical activity suggested might seem intimidating. Generally, it’s a pretty recent phenomenon to have to decide what physical activity we prefer and implement that in our lives. Physical fitness today has had to become more intentional; it’s less interwoven into our daily life as it once was.
One of the many options older adults have when searching for organized group fitness courses is local park districts. Meghan Papke, the adult activity supervisor at a park district in the Chicago suburbs, says one of the most popular activities offered there for older adults is pickleball. Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, is played as singles or doubles on a badminton-sized court, and has seen a surge in popularity in recent years. It’s accessible to all ages and many physical ability levels.
In addition to a variety of locations where people can go to improve their physical health, there’s also a variety of exercise genres. Papke added that at her park district, physical fitness classes offered for older adults include light cardio, sit/stretch/tone, Tai Chi, and boot camp courses. “We’ve offered Tai Chi for decades,” Papke explains, and four years ago they “started adding more fitness classes for older adults” and enrollment has increased from there. Papke says that probably half of program participants have led an active lifestyle for most of their lives, while others “realize they need to keep active, and what better way than to do it with friends?”
Jamey Schuett, a YMCA fitness instructor in northern Illinois, teaches many classes that are tailored to retirement-age adults, including Zumba, chair yoga, water exercise courses, and classes focused specifically on range of motion. Schuett points out that finances can be a real hindrance for people seeking to improve fitness; many seniors are living on a fixed income. To help them get free or reduced cost memberships to fitness centers (like the YMCA), some insurance providers have begun partnering with these fitness centers. When classes are included in memberships, Schuett’s classes are well-attended.
Darla LaQuinta, a retired music teacher, recently began taking private tap dance lessons. Growing up, beyond bike riding and the dance movements involved in musical performances and music teaching, she wasn’t too involved in organized physical activities. But as a musician, tap dance always intrigued her. She grew up in a large family and finances were limited, so it wasn’t until she retired that she was able to take formal lessons.
Regarding benefits she has gained from tap dance lessons, LaQuinta says “I’m learning a lot about body alignment and posture…physically, my balance has improved considerably and I feel my body getting stronger all the time. I’ve benefited from the sense of accomplishment I feel.”
Like many active older adults, LaQuinta takes care of her physical health in numerous ways. She goes on many outdoor walks with her dog, enjoying natural surroundings and encounters with neighbors. She wears a fitness tracker that logs her daily steps and motivates her to push for more. She has a recumbent bike at home to use while watching TV in colder months. LaQuinta also works out at a local Curves gym; Curves is a franchised fitness center targeted at women. One of their most popular offerings is a circuit workout program supported by a coach. LaQuinta enjoys the fitness gains and camaraderie she finds there.
The benefits LaQuinta has received from the physical activities she’s involved with clearly line up with current scientific knowledge regarding benefits of exercise: improved balance and strength in addition to greater mental health and well-being.
Fortunately, today we live in a society that increasingly values physical health and sees its connection to living full, long, functioning, and happy lives. There are a number of varying physical abilities and personal preferences among people, but these factors need not limit one’s participation. The more active we become, the easier it is to stay active. Functional movement expert Gray Cook says, “We are meant to grow strong and to age gracefully. Reclamation of authentic movement is the starting point.” No matter what age we are, as our activity levels rise, so does our quality and enjoyment of life. Let’s not put our physical health to the side; get out there and explore.
Samantha Newman is a dance teacher and mother of two in the Chicago suburbs. She holds a BA in theater arts studies, focusing on design and playwriting, from Brigham Young University.