MARQUETTE - Regular physical activity and exercise benefits both children and adults, but for senior citizens, staying active is of particular importance.
"Exercise is one of the best keys to reducing the risk of developing heart disease, cancer," said Barb Coleman, certified exercise specialist and professor at Northern Michigan University. "It's one of the elements of successful aging."
Incorporating endurance, strength and flexibility training can not only help decrease the risks of becoming ill later in life, but also helps seniors to be able to live and function independently.
Instructor Maria Formolo leads a senior citizen tai chi class at the Ishpeming Senior Center. Important for all age groups, regular exercise is critical for older adults to maintain strength, flexibility, balance and endurance, which are keys to allowing them to live independently. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
"We learned a lot from the space program," Coleman said of the effects of zero gravity on astronauts in which they experienced muscle loss and other issues. "They experienced some of the things we associate with aging... A lot of those changes we had accepted as part of aging, but even if people start exercising at (age) 85, they can make great gains.
"Maybe (those changes) are happening because we stopped moving."
Almost any form of exercise can be used to improve physical fitness, although seniors should be sure to scale that exercise to fit what they are physically capable of and should check with their health care provider before beginning an exercise program, Coleman said.
Often seniors can stay active through simple exercises at home, using weight-bearing exercises like walking to stay active. Balance can be improved simply by practicing standing on one foot, holding onto a wall or chair if needed.
"Balance exercises are critical for everyone," Coleman said.
Swimming or water aerobics are also non-weight-bearing activities that can improve physical fitness without putting pressure on joints.
Just like for younger exercisers, finding a friend to walk or exercise with can be a source of motivation and fun to keep your activity interesting. Group exercise classes can also provide that social element while providing an instructor to guide you through the various exercises.
"If they're going to do a group exercise program, it would be best to choose one for seniors," Coleman said. If seniors choose to attend an exercise class geared toward the general public, Coleman suggested making sure the instructor is knowledgeable and can provide alternative exercises geared toward your level of ability.
A number of organizations in the area offer senior fitness classes, from senior centers in various communities to classes offered through Northern Michigan University.
The Ishpeming Senior Center offers a weekly tai chi class on Tuesdays at 1 p.m. Tai chi, which is a gentle form of martial arts, provides a low impact activity that is easy to follow, but works to improve balance and the connection between the body and mind.
"It's a lot of body-mind awareness," said instructor Maria Formolo. "There's no bouncing or jumping on the joints."
Somewhat similar to yoga, tai chi works to rotate the joints in the body, improve flexibility and connect movement to breathing.
For the seniors who participate, Formolo said benefits range from increased activity to new friendships.
"It's a social event," she said. "We laugh, tell jokes."
No matter what form of exercise seniors decide to participate in, from gardening to a regular class, Coleman said remaining active is an important part of caring for yourself as you age.
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401.