Balance & Stretching Programs for Seniors
The senior population is the fastest growing segment in society. And with Americans living longer, the fitness industry is quickly recognizing that traditional health and fitness programs must include more fitness activities for seniors. The impact of senior fitness goes far beyond the experience itself. It carries a great sense of physical accomplishment, and seems to instill an "I can do it" attitude in your members. And senior fitness programs, including balance and stretching classes, not only benefit members, they can also benefit a facility's bottom line.
Balance and fall prevention
According to the National Institutes of Health, falling is the second leading cause of accidental death for seniors in the U.S., and injuries sustained from a fall are the No. 1 cause for emergency room visits for seniors. But results of a study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine show that seniors who exercise and practice balance activities can avert the devastating effects of a fall. Therefore, one of the most important elements of a senior fitness program is balance training. Balance is an intangible force that allows the body to perform all of the daily activities that many people take for granted.
To create a successful senior activity program, you need to understand the importance of balance in the seniors' lives. Balance gives seniors the confidence to move freely and to engage in physical activities. For many seniors, a lack of balance can create a fear of falling. For years, people thought that falling was simply part of growing old. But by practicing and repeating certain movements on a regular basis, seniors can strengthen muscles that have become inactive. This muscular strength is necessary to correct balance errors.
A second important element of a senior fitness program is stretching. Aging does impose certain limitations, including loss of flexibility from the loss of a substance called "elastin." Therefore, the older people get, the more important stretching becomes for maintaining independence. Stretching is a form of exercise that is a key to mobility, and stretching exercises can provide an easy and effective workout for seniors.
Following are some easy and effective balance and stretching exercises that you can include in your senior fitness classes. Before any older adult begins a new exercise program, however, they should be pre-screened for any medical concerns. Also, make sure that all class members wear sneakers that are wide enough to enable them to curl their toes and spread them wide.
Overall stretch. Begin your class with a warm up. Have your seniors perform five minutes of rhythmic walking or marching, followed by a few minutes of stretching exercises. Have class members slowly and gently stretch and reach in all directions, from fingertips to toes. Next, have them shake and wiggle their arms and legs. Then, have them arch their backs a little. Finally, have them perform another overall stretch. It is very important for your members to be relaxed. If they are relaxed, they can balance better.
Neck stretch. Another stretch seniors can perform is for the neck. Have them relax their neck muscles and slowly and gently turn their heads to the right as far as comfortable, then to the left, and then back to the center. Next, have them make believe there is a clock in front of them, and have them tip their heads from 12 to 3, back to 12, then to 9, then back to 12.
Finding balance. To build a solid foundation for all balance exercises, seniors need to find their "balance point," or center of gravity. In other words, they need to find the position in which their weight is evenly distributed and they feel comfortable and safe. When senior exercisers can feel their balance point, they can achieve a higher level of confidence and fitness success. A chair is required for this exercise.
Instruct your senior class members to stand tall with their feet slightly apart. With a stationary chair in front of them, have them place both hands on the back of the chair, and perform the following movements:
1. Holding onto the chair, raise the right knee so the foot is a few inches off the floor. Allow the right leg, from the knee to the foot, to hang loose. (Be careful not to tuck the foot under the thigh.) Hold this position for a count of three.
2. Return the right leg to the starting position and relax.
3. Repeat the activity with left leg.
4. Now, "play the piano" by rippling the fingertips on the back of the chair. (This allows them to "feel" their balance point without the complete support of the chair.)
5. While "playing the piano," repeat the lifting of the right knee and then the left knee, just high enough to sense how it might feel to completely let go of the chair.
6. Now, slowly raise the right knee so that the foot is a few inches off the floor. Let go of the chair and gently raise the arms, little by little, until a balance point is found. Hold this position as long as possible. (At first, it might be just a fraction of a second.)
7. Return hands to the chair, lower the right leg and relax.
8. Repeat with the left leg.
Perform five repetitions for each leg.
Practicing balance. A more challenging senior exercise is called "Tap Dance." You may modify this exercise to include less-experienced participants. At this level of expertise, seniors may not need a chair in front of them, but keep one there for safety.
1. Stand tall, feet slightly apart, arms at the balance point.
2. Raise the left leg straight out in front, so that the foot is just barely off the floor, with toes pointed.
3. Move the leg up and down, tapping the toes to the floor three times.
4. Now, move the left leg out to the side, with the foot just barely off the floor, and tap three times.
5. Continue moving the left leg to the back, and tap three times.
6. Return to the starting position, and relax.
7. Repeat the activity using the right leg.
Perform two sets of repetitions (a set equals right and left leg). To increase difficulty, don't let the toes touch the floor while tapping.
Putting it all together. In this next exercise, seniors can improve their balance, strengthen their heart and legs, improve coordination and posture and, at the same time, have fun. In it, they move not only forward and backward, but also sideways and in circles. Foot patterns are simple at first, but become more complex.
Following is how to perform this exercise, which is called "Dancing with your pillow":
1. Instruct class members to hold their pillow (real or imaginary) in one arm, close to their body.
2. Stretch the other arm out and away from the body, as though holding onto a partner. (By holding onto a pillow, they have removed one of their balancing stabilizers and changed their balance point. Their legs now have to help them maintain their balance. So, without their knowing, they are exercising their legs while having fun.)
3. After a short period, have them hold the pillow in their other hand.
4. When they feel safe, comfortable and secure, have them hug their pillow to their chest with both arms and dance. Be sure to play music that your class members enjoy.
The combination of dancing with a pillow and practicing these exercises can have a positive impact on reducing falls and the debilitating injuries that falls can cause.
Although these exercises may seem quite simple and easy to do, remember that your program can easily evolve to include more comprehensive exercises as your senior classes progress. What you want to ensure in the beginning is that seniors develop a strong sense of their "balance point," and become comfortable with mastering the simple exercises before moving on.
Considerations for your senior classes
The following details can help you to create a comprehensive, smoothly running senior fitness program. (More suggestions appear in the sidebars.)
Props. For your balance and stretching program, you may want to use simple props, such as chairs, masking tape (to make a floor balance beam), a portable 1-inch balance beam, and a boom box, with music such as "The Tennessee Waltz" or other waltzes for pillow dancing, and "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" or other 1940s songs for stretching.
Safety. If possible, hire a specialist in senior fitness programming, and maintain high standards by researching quality resources and using comprehensive training programs. Also, have safety guidelines in place, which include proper warm-up techniques and stretching procedures, and make sure your instructors take special precautions with susceptible areas such as the neck, hip, back and knees.
To appeal to the large senior market, fitness marketers must know how to "talk" to seniors in their advertising. Following are some suggestions:
* Stress the theme of independence (fitness promotes independence).
* Advertise "hot buttons" such as new and unique programming for seniors, increasing leg strength, improving balance, preventing falls, etc.
* Highlight the cost factor (special discount pricing for seniors).
* Create a sense of security, convenience and comfort when describing your classes.
* Use larger print in fliers and ads.
* Use direct mail pieces, to which new seniors are more receptive.
* Make it as easy as possible to respond to ads with a simple registration procedure and easy-to-access phone number (use numbers, not letters, for your phone number).
* Have a website: Seniors are the fastest growing segment on the Internet.
* Include a picture of a senior (maybe a senior exercise class) because seniors like to see what they are buying. In your ads, use healthy, good-looking, vital seniors.
* Create a flier for your current members to pass on to their parents and grandparents.
* In commercials, do not focus solely on the senior, but rather appeal to the senior's children (called transgenerational marketing).
* If there is a newspaper targeted to seniors in your area, make sure to put in a coupon for one free class for them and a friend.
* Give a tour of your facility and offer one free trial class.
* To sell your program, conduct presentations at churches, and for retirement groups, professionals and civic organizations that work with seniors.
* Contact your Chamber of Commerce and local Safety Council to alert them to your new senior program.
* Offer an open-house (with refreshments) for seniors only.
* Enlist the support of local doctors, neurosurgeons, geriatricians, ophthalmologists, PTs, OTs, chiropractors and podiatrists. HMOs may discount senior classes, especially when fall prevention is included.
* Offer a member recruitment bonus: For each new class member recruited by an existing member, he/she receives one or two free classes.
Seniors are a special and deserving group who will add much enthusiasm and value to your facility. With good senior programs, you can empower them with the responsibility of being in charge of their own lives, which benefits everyone. A successful fitness facility will realize that great opportunities exist by implementing a balance and stretching program. FM
Senior Fitness Class Considerations
Cost: Base it on whatever the market will bear
Duration: 10 weeks
Best times: 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., or 1:30 or 2:30 p.m.
Times per week: Two that will not conflict with your peak times
Class size: Depending on space available, maximum of 25 seniors
Class length: 45 minutes to one hour
Important Do's and Don'ts for a Senior Class
* Be aware of "ageism"; recognize your own prejudices.
* Listen and communicate.
* Treat senior members with respect.
* Have patience -- a lot of patience.
* Back up your ideas/comments with research.
* Send thank-you, miss-you and hurry-back postcards (very important to seniors).
* Adapt the activity to fit the needs of the learner.
* Keep classes light and fun. Fun is the key.
* Ask questions to ensure complete understanding of the seniors' perspective.
* Keep music volume down to allow participants to hear the instructor, or wear a microphone.
* Select movements that are easy to follow, and perform exercises at a slow to moderate pace.
* Speak clearly and concisely.
* Stereotype seniors.
* Use the word "old or elderly."
* Tell seniors the solution before you
understand the problem.
* Have low expectations; they can do more than you think they can.
Betty Perkins-Carpenter, M.S., can be contacted at 716 586-7548, or by email at email@example.com. You can order a copy of her books How To Prevent Falls: A Comprehensive Guide To Better Balance, Fun of Fitness or her Stretching In Bed guide at her website at www.senior-fitness.com.
©Copyright 2006. Fitness Management
Article by Betty Perkins-Carpenter, M.S.