"How can I get my loved one to be more active?" It's a common question asked by concerned caregivers who understand the value of physical fitness for aging adults but who can't seem to convince an elderly family member to exercise.
The perspective of the older adult is understandable. Advancing age, compounded by the onset of various chronic conditions (e.g. arthritis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes, cardiovascular disease) can quickly stifle an individual's desire (and ability) to engage in regular physical activity. Even if your loved one used to be an avid gym-goer, the degradation of their physical condition can make them self-conscious about venturing back into an environment typically dominated by loud music and muscle-bound men and women.
Indeed, not feeling comfortable with the traditional gym atmosphere is the number one complaint of the older adults who turn to Joseph Pitrone, a wellness specialist based in Naples, FL, for in-home physical training. "In the home setting, there are fewer distractions and less noise, which makes them feel more comfortable," says Pitrone, who works primarily with people over 50 who are dealing with ailments such as Alzheimer's disease, brain cancer, paralysis, traumatic brain injuries and post-stroke recovery.
The role emotional support during exercise
Cutting edge equipment and exercise classes tailored towards aging adults are some of the primary benefits of gym membership. But, there's one essential element of elder-focused physical fitness that can be hard to capture in the traditional gym setting: emotional support.
A degree in athletic training enables Pitrone to develop programs that cater to each individual's physical condition, but addressing the emotional needs of men and women who are dealing with challenging health conditions is perhaps the most important component of his job. "There is a big difference between telling someone to do an exercise and really being there for them," he says. "You have to be passionate about it. I love helping people and changing their lives."
It can be hard to achieve this kind of emotional connection amidst the cacophony of activity in a regular gym. And being surrounded by people in peak physical condition can be especially demoralizing for older individuals whose minds and bodies don't always do what they want them to do.
For example, an individual recovering from a stroke may become frustrated when the damage sustained by their brain results in neurological miscommunication; making even the simplest of movements seem impossible. In these instances, says Pitrone, sometimes all you can do is to reassure them that they are making progress, even if it doesn't always seem that way. "It's about calming them down, giving them comfort and letting them know that we'll get through it together."
Alzheimer's presents a different challenge. Repetition and patience are the two essential training tools Pitrone uses when working with individuals whose memory loss makes it challenging for them to remember even a simple set of exercise instructions.
Expert at-home exercise tips
Exercise is undeniably an integral component to maintaining an elderly loved one's physical and mental wellbeing—not to mention their caregiver's. As veteran caregiver Marlis Powers puts it, "Your Life May Depend on It."
Regular physical activity can even protect a senior's brain from certain effects of aging. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that aerobic exercise could increase the size of the hippocampus—the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory formation—even in women who were in their 70s.
With a little bit of planning and a few pieces of equipment (light hand weights, resistance bands and a chair or two), caregivers and their loved ones can both reap the benefits of exercise without having to leave the house. Pitrone offers a few general guidelines for incorporating an at-home workout into your loved one's daily routine:
- Insisting on consistency: How often should a senior exercise? "Once a day would be the ideal," says Pitrone, who recommends aiming for 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular activity (e.g. walking, swimming) followed by a few weight-bearing exercises at least four times a week.
- Working the legs: While every body part is important, strong legs are a crucial to maintaining mobility and staving off falls. "As soon as you lose your legs, you start to age pretty quickly," according to Pitrone. Fortunately, even something as simple as getting in and out of a chair repeatedly—often referred to as a "sit and stand"—can help keep you loved one's leg muscles strong.
- Maintaining balance: There are a variety of balance exercises for seniors that are easy to do at home. But, you can start by having your loved one to stand on one foot while holding on to a chair or the wall for support. After a few seconds, have them switch to the other foot, then repeat.
- Dealing with reluctance: Depending on the day, your loved one may not be very enthusiastic about walking around the house, let alone engaging in a formal exercise routine. When this happens, there's not too much you can do except offer them encouragement and ask for fewer repetitions.
If you just can't seem to get your loved one moving or if you feel your patience is wearing too thin, you might want to consider seeking the services of a wellness specialist. Similar to employing a specially-trained in-home caregiver to assist with activities of daily life, hiring an athletic training professional to help your loved one stay active can serve the dual function of keeping them healthy, while giving you a brief break from your caregiving duties.