The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion published a survey of primary care physicians and clinicians indicating that only 30% of those surveyed currently provide counseling to their older, sedentary clients on the benefits of physical activity (USDHHS, 1996). The message about activity and aging must be delivered to seniors if it is to effect change. Fitness professionals are ready and willing to bridge this gap in the healthcare system.
Dr. Sal Arria is the Executive Director and Co-Founder of the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), an organization that firmly believes personal trainers hold the key to changing poor health in this nation. Dr. Arria said, "It's up to fitness professionals to take over the health care of this country.
The current health care (really should be called 'sick care') model has failed miserably treating sickness, and is the wrong approach to health." Dr. Arria went on to say, "Teaching, motivating, inspiring, and educating clients to exercise and eat properly is the key to changing the outcomes... and no one is more qualified to do this than Certified Fitness Trainers, period."
Senior Fitness Course
ISSA has developed a Specialist in Senior Fitness course to help trainers prepare themselves to safely and effectively work with this aging population. The demand is high for properly educated fitness trainers who have the knowledge and experience to train mature clients.
Fitness trainers that market themselves to the senior population should be prepared to address issues associated with aging. Older clients may begin participating in exercise for various reasons, but they all seek to improve their health as they age. Health professionals should first assess what prompted the client to seek health and fitness advice. Some older clients may be exercising at the request of a physician, others at the urging of a loved one.
Motivation For Action
Still others may have found internal motivation to begin an activity program. Clients who exercise because someone else directed them to might require more encouragement than the client who sought out exercise on their own. Once a trainer has determined why the client is seeking exercise, they must then ascertain how best to accommodate their needs. Making this determination requires focus and research.
Assisting anyone in making a lifestyle change requires doing some work - this is especially true for older clients. Mature clients may present conditions that require additional research on the part the trainer. In the case of the client who is exercising at the request of their physician, it is important for the trainer to become familiar with the specific needs of the client's medical condition.
Clients appreciate when fitness trainers can provide clarification regarding the terms of their medical condition. Many clients may have been too uncomfortable asking their physician questions, others may have simply forgotten to ask. Addressing sensitive concerns and competently answering questions builds trust between the trainer and the client.
For the client, understanding the benefit associated with activity is an important factor in exercise adherence. Trainers should be prepared to go the extra mile in helping clients feel comfortable. It creates a win-win situation.
Examining Past History
Fitness professionals should also take into consideration a client's past exposure to health and fitness. Trainers must realize that older adults have had many years, if not decades, to develop poor health habits. Consequently, it may take some time to replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones; a gradual introduction into exercise is usually best.
Some older clients may have never been in a fitness facility and many pieces of equipment you find commonplace will be completely foreign to them. Most older clients did not have access to adequate physical education programs when they were younger, especially women. Trainers will find the client's history valuable for planning an education strategy that will compliment the physical training program. Once the client's history is evaluated, the next step is finding out what they enjoy.
Fitness trainers should inquire about what activities the person has participated in or enjoyed in the past. As with any client, trainers must find the right balance between enjoyable activities and necessary exercises. Although the best scenario is one in which the client will enjoy the exercises he or she needs most, evidence indicates that many activities older clients need most will not be among their favorites (at least in the beginning). Although weight-bearing exercise is very beneficial for someone with arthritis or osteoporosis, it may seem intimidating to someone just getting started. The transition from a sedentary lifestyle to an active lifestyle can be difficult.
By including fun, less threatening activities the client will benefit from both physical gains and emotional well being. Trainers can also aid in the transition by including a socialization component in exercise programs for mature clients.
Surrounded By Their Peers
Most older adults enjoy working with people their own age. Encouraging social interaction is very important - not to mention beneficial. Socialization should not be overlooked when planning a fitness program for older clients. Older clients trying new activities feel more comfortable and safe when surrounded by older peers. Trainers should encourage older clients to get to know one another; it creates a support system for them.
Seniors who exercise feel better, and then share their success stories with their family and friends. Many seniors who have experienced the benefits of an active lifestyle encourage their friends to hire a fitness trainer and start a fitness program. The Surgeon General's Report on Physical Activity states that "social support from family and friends has been consistently and positively linked to regular physical activity."
The key to successful aging is regular participation in a physical activity program. As the population over 65 years of age in the United States grows each year, so does the need for educated health and fitness professionals. Fitness trainers can make a huge impact on the health of the nation by providing safe and effective programs for older clients. By obtaining the necessary training to help the older population age successfully, fitness trainers can position themselves as preventative healthcare practitioners for the next century.