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Fitness classes for seniors - and their chronic conditions

Exercise should be fun, whatever your age, instructor says


Photo Credit: PHOTO: JANIE L. NAFSINGER - Strength training is included in the fitness classes for seniors that Teena Hall teaches. Here, residents of Rose Villa retirement community in Milwaukie work with hand weights.

It took more than two decades of trial and error, of reading books on geriatrics and of consulting doctors and physical therapists. But Group Fitness Instructor Teena Hall now knows how to tailor her fitness classes to individuals age 50 and older based on their physical ability and whether they have chronic health conditions.

Anyone is welcome to attend the fitness classes she teaches at North Clackamas Parks & Recreations District’s Milwaukie Community Center, but her seven different classes are mainly geared toward seniors. She also teaches two classes every week at Rose Villa retirement community in Milwaukie.

Hall, 55, is part of a growing trend that involves adjusting group exercises to the age, ability and health of older adults. For instance, Hall said she encounters many people with Type 2 diabetes who tell her, “I’m diabetic and I need to exercise.” And a recent study found that aerobics combined with resistance exercise provided the most benefit, resulting in lower blood sugar in study participants with diabetes.

Whether it’s Circuit Training, Stretch and Flex, Complete Conditioning or simply chair exercises for those relying on wheelchairs and walkers, Hall’s different levels of fitness classes can benefit seniors who are healthy and physically active, as well as those with physical restrictions.

“They need to keep moving,” she said of the latter. “I look at it like it’s an insurance policy. Their body will handle the condition better.”

And, in each class, Hall is careful to avoid the kind of incident that occurred years ago when a woman in her exercise class became dizzy, and Hall found out she wore a pacemaker. A paramedic was called, and ultimately the woman was fine. But now, Hall asks class participants to inform her of any health conditions that might influence their ability to exercise.

She asks if they have any pacemakers, joint replacements, what blood pressure and other heart medications they’re on, even whether they’re taking cholesterol-lowering medications, which, Hall said, can cause muscle cramping.

At times, Hall may require participants to bring a recommendation from their doctor, clearing them for exercise.

“I try to get feedback and modify the exercise for them,” Hall said. “It depends on the individual.”

When Hall began her work as a fitness instructor in 1986, there were few aerobic classes for seniors and almost no fitness training classes for the elderly, she said.

“Thankfully, now there are a lot of fitness programs for seniors,” she said, adding that the oldest person now in her class is 98.

One persistent problem is that older adults can be locked in to specific fitness programs that aren’t challenging enough.

“If someone’s 72 and is only doing chair exercises, but they’re able to do more, it’s hard for me to see that,” Hall said.

Exercise should be fun, she added, and one way to liven up exercise for those with less mobility is to toss around beach balls or balloons.

On those occasions when Hall has been asked to speak to diabetic support groups, she will have her audience keep balloons up in the air while she’s giving her talk. “They’re laughing and enjoying it and I tell them, ‘you’ve just had a workout.’ “

Hall’s classes at Milwaukie Center are popular. More than 100 people attend per week and there are often waiting lists.

“I always want to make sure I get feedback from them on how they’re feeling,” she said. “I’m not a medical person, so I rely on their input.”