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eeping Fit

Fitness Focus On Frail Elderly

© Wayne L. Westcott PhD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Keeping Fit by Wayne L. Westcott PhD. View all columns in series

Our research with debilitated elderly nursing home residents was just as encouraging as our work with healthy older adults. We conducted a landmark study at the John Knox Village Assisted Living Center in Orange City, Florida, where the average age of the patients was 89 years. Due to their low level of muscular strength (most of the participants were pushed in wheelchairs to the exercise room), they performed only six Nautilus exercises per session. The participants performed one set of each exercise, twice a week, for a period of 14 weeks. They replaced 4.0 pounds of muscle and reduced 3.0 pounds of fat. Their strength increased so much (80 percent in the legs and 40 percent in the upper body) that almost all of the patients could function without their wheelchairs. One woman's physical capacity improved to the point where she actually left the nursing facility and went home to live with her husband.

This study showed us that a brief program of strength exercise can be effective for even the most frail members of our society. The assisted living patients increased their personal independence (functional independence measure) by one percent per week, enabling them to perform many daily tasks that they couldn't previously do without assistance.

The results of this and similar studies have prompted numerous assisted living centers to initiate strength training programs to improve the quality of life for their most needy residents. In addition, many senior living facility administrators now realize that strength training may be the best means for extending the time people spend on their independent living campuses which, of course, benefits everyone. For this reason more and more senior living centers are making well-equipped and well-staffed exercise rooms available to all residents.

Think of it this way. If you are planning to move into a senior living facility, would you choose one that expects you to go from walking independently to walking with a cane to walking with a walker to using a wheelchair? Or would you prefer a facility that helps people move from wheelchairs to walkers to canes to walking independently through supervised strength training programs? If you are like me, you appreciate the pro-active approach that focuses on improved fitness and function.

Sometimes we have the mistaken notion that keeping elderly individuals comfortable means all rest and no physical effort. I am convinced that most older adults enjoy a more comfortable and satisfying life when they have a balance between quality rest and purposeful physical activity. And make no mistake, strength training is far and away the most important physical activity for older adults. The muscles are the engines of the body, and most senior men and women really appreciate the more powerful engines they develop through sensible strength training.

If you have frail elderly family or friends, encourage those responsible for their care and well-being to provide supervised strength training opportunities that can improve their physical fitness and functional capacity. Everyone benefits when frail elderly become strong older adults.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books including the new releases Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50.

©2001 Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D. all rights reserved
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About The Author
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and......more
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