Over the past weeks and months, I have to say that I have been building a bit of a passion for training the elderly. I have been blessed to have had 2 clients aged over 80 in the past year, and another client aged over 70. Training these clients has been a rewarding experience for me.
I was thinking about why this was the case. What was it, exactly, that made helping these clients fulfilling? I think part of it is the social context. In the modern western world, with Governments so heavily focused on economics, it seems that the elderly have in a sense been discarded by society. It is as if they have reached the end of their productive lives and are thus not respected by governments and the youth anymore. Despite the fact that they have gathered vast wealth in the form of life experience and wisdom, few people seem to be asking questions and seeking that out. When was the last time you heard an elderly person share their wisdom on anything to a younger, attentive audience?
And yes, I know its a stereotype. If you look out there, no doubt you’ll find an example of an elderly person who is doing exactly this. It is happening. But is it happening as much as you might expect? Is it happening as much as it should? When we think Instagram celebrity or social media influencer, are we really thinking about people aged over 70?
In the fitness world, so much of the media and hype is geared towards those who are either looking for massive weight loss and total body transformation (e.g. the biggest loser), or it is geared around getting people to look really hot. The “hotness” thing is strongly sexualised and influenced by aggrandized libido. It is about having as much glamour and sex appeal as the MTV celebrity. Turning heads in the nightclub. Being desired. Using the praise and adulation from others to patch up the holes and insecurities in one’s self-concept.
I’ve said it before that its ok to have such a goal. Your goals are your goals after all. But at least let us not forget about the other, less glamourous goals that are none-the-less still really important. What about being pain free? What about retaining basic functionality, balance and range of motion? What about reducing the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease? What about exercising in order to achieve the goals of good emotional regulation, to avoid depression or to encourage clear and creative thinking?
These are some of the reasons why training the elderly is rewarding. One of the key things that experts say about the elderly is that grip strength is important. So in other words, if you can grip something firmly in your hand, that becomes an important indicator of whether you can be functional and independent in your old age. It allows you to work in the kitchen, in the garden and to do things. To get up off the floor. To turn off the bathroom tap. I call it the gherkin jar test. Do you have enough strength in your wrists to open the gherkin jar up?
Another one is balance. People tend to lose balance in their old age and are at increased risk of injury due to falls. Ask anyone who has had a hip replacement and they will tell you that it sucked. It is important to maintain muscle strength in the adductors, the TFL, the internal and external obliques, as well as the core, for the elderly to help them to retain their balance. It is also increasingly important to actually practice balancing, in order to maintain neuro-muscular coordination.
Its the small increases in independence and dignity that make these kind of gains so satisfying to be a part of. They really help a lot and I have found that people tend to light up when they get it right. I hope to release a short interview with one of my elderly clients in the next week or two showing some of the things that are possible