If you are sixty-five or older, expect to be called elderly. This term is used in statements of national health policy and, unfortunately, conjures up a picture of a frail individual, walking very slowly or with the aid of a walker, and needing help getting into a car or over a doorsill. There are obviously people in the seventh decade of life and beyond who fit this description. But many in the “elderly” age category make the term seem ridiculous. I became aware of this after visiting a gym in Lenox, MA this summer.
Lenox is the summer hub for musical and other cultural activities and draws visitors from nearby New England states and New York. Many retirees spend long weekends or even a month or two in the area, and the people on the streets or walking the grounds of Tanglewood where the Boston Symphony performs might justify the term elderly. They walk slowly, some with canes, and do not seem particularly fit. But the gym we visited on a Sunday morning made me realize that there are many who would be dismayed at being classified as “elderly.”
Looking around as I paused between some arm exercises, I noticed with surprise that the majority of the people exercising were in their sixties or older. There were similar numbers of men and women and all were exercising quite intensely And, unlike my gym at home where at least half the members have a trainer next to them, urging them to work out even harder, here everyone was exercising alone. They were working out quite hard. A woman on a mat—she looked as if she was close to eighty—was doing so many abdominal crunches that my own stomach hurt just watching her. A man who must have been at least seventy-five was lifting at least twice his weight over his head and a woman on a machine I wanted to use next was grimacing with exertion as she exercised her back muscles. After she was finished, we began to chat and I learned that she was seventy-two. She had the body of an athletic fifty-five-year-old. The same age groups occupied the various aerobic workout machines and their sweat and facial contortions indicated some serious calorie burning.
Later that day, I met some acquaintances who were staying in Lenox for a long weekend. Two of them were comparing their long, hot, hilly runs earlier that day and talking about what routes they would take the next day. One was seventy-eight and the other, sixty-nine.
All these people meet the age-based definition of elderly but they hardly fit the stereotype of an old person. The seventy-two-year-old woman with whom I chatted told me that after retiring from an extremely busy career as therapist, she now is a full -time artist with a gallery show coming up in the fall. Being physically fit is only one component of her vigorous and stimulating life.
These exercising elderly are, unfortunately, an exception. National statistics on the lifestyle of people sixty-five and older indicate that considerably less than 50 percent of people in this age category exercise routinely and very few do anything as vigorous as what I saw in the gym. Their sedentary lifestyle did not typically start when they received their first Social Security check but rather decades earlier. The majority tends to avoid physical activity rather than seeking it out even though the benefits on health, weight, mental alertness and even memory have been recited over and over. Many people use their age as an excuse for not starting or maintaining any exercise routine. Several years ago, a new client in our weight-loss clinic announced that we should not expect her to join our exercise program because she was too old. She had just turned forty.
Telling people how important exercise is and then giving them a long list of benefits doesn’t seem to work. People who exercise routinely will quote its virtues but usually the only ones who listen are those who are also engaged in regular physical activity. We asked people at our weight-loss center if they would bother exercising if it had no impact on their weight and the answer was an almost universal NO.
So maybe the argument that will work is “exercise will let you lie about your age” because you will definitely look younger than those your age who are sedentary. You will stand straighter, the flab on your arms will be exchanged for muscle, your walking pace will increase, you will climb stairs easily, have no problem carrying heavy packages, and will easily give up your seat on the subway to someone at least fifteen years younger than you. And you will be like my friend who ran several blocks to catch a bus. When she climbed aboard and showed her senior bus pass to the driver, she was told to pay full fare. He told her, “Anyone who runs like you isn’t a senior citizen.”