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Health news and issues in the Ozarks.

Exercise Can Keep You Feeling Young

Michele Skalicky

Exercise Class

You’re hearing the sounds of an aerobics class at Mercy Fitness Center.  One of the participants is Lois Smith.  She’s a huge advocate for exercise—in fact, she says it enters into almost every conversation she has with people.

She exercises five mornings a week—taking classes like Zumba and Get Up & Go—an aerobic dance class for seniors.

The 82-year-old is in great shape—and that’s partly because of something that happened years ago while she was snow skiing.

"I injured a knee and found that, you know, you need to strengthen the muscles all over your body in order to keep those joints healthy," she said.

She says she’s learned a lot about what will keep her body healthy.  And she’s noticed the impact of the classes as she’s gotten older.

"As you get stronger your balance is better, and as I've gotten older, I really see the importance of not being the one that falls down and can't get up," she said.

Smith is just one of many people who realize the benefits exercise can give them as they age.  According to Mollie Estes, mind-body coordinator for CoxHealth Fitness Centers, a 91-year-old woman recently ran the Girls Just Wanna Run 5K and finished in the middle of the pack with others much younger than her.

She says, as we age, we lose muscle mass.  Exercise can help make a person stronger and can help prevent bone loss and improve balance and coordination. 

Charlene Blacksher, fitness specialist with Mercy Springfield, says exercise can help prevent loss of mobility, flexibility and balance.

"You know, everybody loses balance especially as we get older, and it's going to happen, but it can happen slower if you exercise," she said.

Classes at Mercy give people the ability to get up if they do fall or catch themselves if they slip.

"This gal wanted to get on the floor of her kitchen to get something out of a cabinet, and she couldn't bend over, and she got down there, and she couldn't get up, and she started crying.  And I said, 'what'd you do?'  She said, 'I crawled into the living room and pushed myself up on the couch.'  She had no idea  how to get off that floor.  And we teach, in falls prevention, we make them get on the floor and teach them how to get up," she said.

There are classes at both Cox and Mercy’s fitness centers designed specifically for seniors. 

Nancy Propst, group exercise manager at Cox Fitness Centers, says some older people might be hesitant to exercise because they think it might be risky, and you should check with your physician before starting an exercise program.  But she says being sedentary is even risker because you may end up not being able to do simple tasks.

"I think it's important, you know, just to keep your legs strong so you can get up out of the chair or, you know, keep your upper body strong so you can carry your own groceries," she said.

She suggests Tai Chi, which she says helps with balance, range of motion and stress relief or a senior-oriented strength training class.

Arthritis is a disease that affects many people as they age, and Mollie Estes says studies have shown that exercise can ease symptoms.

"And we actually have about three or four different exercise classes just for arthritis patients either in the pool or we have a land class, too, that's exercise for arthritis, and it's shown to just greatly help with joint mobility because you're keeping those fluids in the joints moving.  It's almost like working an engine, oiling and lubing it up.  You're keeping all of those fluids nice and fresh and working in the joints, so it helps with that," she said.

Exercise can help a person’s mental health as well.  Many seniors choose to go to group classes for the social interaction.  And, according to Propst, some classes that work opposites—for example, left leg, right leg or anything that crosses the midline can help stave off dementia.

She’s seen the power of exercise firsthand.

"At our north facility we had a guy that came in.  He couldn't walk on his own at all and had to use a walker for assistance and just with some regular strength training and stretching and range of motion, he is now able to just walk freely, which is amazing," she said.

Lois Smith will keep heading to the gym as long as she’s able.  She says she loves the way exercise makes her feel.

"Oh, it's a great mood enhancer--what I just got through doing, zumba, you know, you can't dance and not smile and be happy.  It's very free flowing, and you move everything, you know," she said.

Smith recently underwent a lumpectomy and radiation.  Her doctor told her people who exercise on a regular basis get through medical issues like that much better.

She says, for her, not exercising isn’t an option.

"It's a big part of my day, and I think most people in there if you ask them they'd say the same thing.  You look forward to it.  You want to come.  You get to know the instructors, the people around you.  You feel like you're only competing with yourself.  You don't feel like you have to live up to anything," she said.