A New Paradigm for Aging
I believe that we need to create a new attitude toward aging
in the United States. We do not do senior citizens a favor by
attempting to make life easier for them. Many of the health
and mobility problems experienced as we age are caused
from immobility and in our society we make it easy to be
immobile. The idea of taking it easy as we get older should
be discarded and replaced with a new outlook.
I spoke recently with a 30-year-old acquaintance and told
her that I taught resistance training classes for senior
citizens. She said, “Oh, that’s wonderful. You can have them
play games and pretend to be animals.” When I replied that
we did squats and shoulder presses just like she does at
the gym, her eyes opened wide in disbelief.
Why does our society assume that when we become
“senior citizens” we should be treated like children? Her
attitude is what’s wrong with the general public’s beliefs
At a meeting recently I heard a representative of AARP
describe in glowing terms how AARP is helping seniors by
giving them items to make their lives easier—equipment
like grab bars in the bathtub. I am not saying that this is a
bad idea. Grab bars in the bathtub are an excellent idea.
Probably all bathtubs should have them because seniors
have no monopoly on slipping in the tub.
But I have a problem dealing with the concept that we
should make life easier for senior citizens as they age. And I
am preaching to anyone who will listen that we need to
rethink our attitude toward aging.
In their book, Biomarkers, William J. Evans and Irwin
Rosenberg say, “…when you arrive at age 55 or 60, it is not
time to put your feet up and take it easy for the rest of your
life. In truth, at no time during your lifetime is putting your feet
up and resting for extended periods of time a good idea.”
Dr. Walter M. Bortz II, who studied the deleterious effects of
bed rest, came to the conclusion that “…at least a portion of
the changes that are commonly attributed to aging are, in
reality, caused by immobility. As such, they’re subject to
correction by mobility—meaning activity and exercise.”
Not being able to take care of themselves is one of the
biggest fears of the elderly. I heard recently from a friend that
his 87-year-old mother had fallen while she was in her yard
alone. She was unable to get up and had to lie there for
several hours until someone came along to help her.
What if we didn’t encourage seniors to move to homes with
no stairs? What if there were more physical events
designed specifically for older people? What if there were
more strengthening classes available to help seniors
regain and retain strength and independence?
What if seniors in assisted living homes weren’t treated like
children and told to sit in chairs and exercise by placing their
hands on their heads and then on their shoulders and back
again? What if they were asked to exercise as do younger
people—by lifting weights for upper body and doing squats
for lower body strength?
What if—instead of building chairs that lift seniors to a
standing position— they learn to exercise so their leg
muscles are strong enough to lift them onto their feet?
Why not work on keeping seniors strong as they age--so
they will remain independent and not need the aids that are
so accepted in our society? Why don’t we attempt to change
the mind set that has produced this problem?
The answer for most of us is that we don’t know any better.
We are not aware that we can choose to remain
independent as we age because we have been told all our
lives that we should take it easy as we grow older.
To illustrate how deeply embedded is the idea that we
should slow down as we get older, here are a few quotes
from a book published a few years ago about preparing for
being unable to live independently as you age.
”...Eliminate the need for strenuous physical exertion where
possible, especially the need to climb stairs…”
“…A dining table in the kitchen saves walking and reduces
“…meal preparation… can also be tiring…. Guarding
against overexertion requires attention to the following
“…Reduce physical exertion: Keep bending, lifting, and
reaching to a minimum. Replace heavy iron cookware with
lighter weight …pots and pans.”
This mind set enables seniors to progressively become
weaker as the muscles in their arms and legs atrophy. Why
not encourage seniors to climb stairs as long as they are
able? Why not suggest that lifting heavy pans can help keep
your arm muscles strong? Why not stress that being active
actually causes you to have more energy—not the
The truth is that the more you exercise, the more energy you
will have. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the
way our bodies were designed. I see it every day in the
senior strength classes I teach. Every student I have ever
had states that they have more energy when they work out
Of course, some seniors have diseases such as
Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis, and that is a different
story. They are truly not able to remain independent.
However, they should exercise as much as they are able.
Exercise can help delay the onset and progression of many
My mother is 96 years old and still lives alone in her own
home. She’s an amazing lady who gets around without a
cane or walker. When I visit her, I find myself wanting to wait
on her, to go get items that she needs, and in general, to
take care of her so that she never needs to get up from her
This makes no sense at all. We need to give up
“enabling” seniors to become more and more dependent.
Tufts University in Boston has done much research into the
aging process. They have proven that even 90-year-olds can
become stronger just by doing resistance training. Muscles
do not forget how to be strong, they atrophy because they
are not used.
Over and over in my classes I watch people in their
seventies and eighties become stronger. I watch them
become more independent and self-sufficient. I see their
self-esteem increase as they begin to realize that they are
not doomed to a continuous spiral of becoming weaker and
weaker with every passing day.
Class participants tell me that they can get in and out of the
car easier, that going up stairs is easier, that the arthritis is
their knees is gone, that the creaky shoulder is without pain.
And most of all they tell me that they feel better and have
more energy. They work at exercising. They come to class
barely able to lift three-pound weights. In only a few weeks,
they move up to five pounds. Then they laugh at how three
pounds used to feel heavy. They move up to eight pound
weights for some of the exercises. They feel better about
themselves. I love hearing their stories about how strength
training has changed their lives.
Encourage your loved ones to remain independent, to get
up and move around their homes, to take care of
themselves. If you have a parent living with you, encourage
him or her to be self-sufficient. Don’t try to alter the living
space so they hardly need to move. Make sure they
understand that they need to be active.
If you are a health care provider, encourage your patients or
residents to do things for themselves, to walk, to participate
in exercise classes, to do anything that will cause them to
move and stretch. Investigate how strength exercise might
be included in the lives of those for whom you are
If you are a senior, get moving and get lifting. Climb up and
down stairs, carry bags of groceries, work in the
garden—make your body work. Get involved in a exercise
program or set up one of your own. Include walking,
stretching and strength training for a complete program. If
you don’t use your muscles, you will lose them.
Let’s all work to change our attitude toward aging. No longer
let us sit and rock while our muscles atrophy. We can work
together to help all of us learn how keep strong and
independent for as long as we live.
Phyllis Rogers is a Certified Fitness Trainer and Specialist
in Fitness for Older Adults. She is author of "Over 40 &
Gettin' Stronger" which contains an easy to learn strength
workout which uses only dumbbells and can be done at
home. She has taught more than 1200 strength classes for
older adults Her web site is http://www.StrongOver40.com. She
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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