“Baby Boomers led an unprecedented fitness revolution, into a golden era of health,” wrote Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D. in his 1968 best seller “Aerobics”.
However, it was an icon in the Greatest Generation that inspired them when he established exercise as a matter of national security. John F. Kennedy became the first President-elect to make a major policy statement in a signed magazine article.
The December 1960 issue of “Sports Illustrated” featured an article JFK wrote entitled, “The Soft American”. He noted that the physical well-being of citizens is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of the nation.
Citing statistics from the Korean War that showed one in two young Americans were being rejected for military service as mentally, morally, or physically unfit, Kennedy wrote that, “…our growing softness, our lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security.”
This initiative led to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness in 1963, which would influence the culture and education of 76 million Boomers just coming into young adulthood.
Today, 40 to 60 years later, they’ve mellowed a bit, gained some weight perhaps, worn out some joints. The high-energy workouts and sports so many relished as young men and women are a thing of the past. Now it’s about continuing to be able to do the ordinary movements that daily life requires, whether getting out of chair without struggling, carrying groceries from the car, and above all, not falling.
Today, the new terminology is “functional fitness,” the ability of people to perform basic daily tasks, and it is central to what Elyse Giles does as the Wellness Director at the Athens YMCA.
“Walking, pushing, pulling, bending over, squatting down to pick something up, lifting, lunging to grab something, all are everyday motions that can be improved by proper exercise programs,” says Giles, a 20-year fitness professional who teaches both group and individual classes.
The Gen X’er says she learned from the best, her mentor Vivian Smith,73, a retired teacher who has been in the fitness business for fifty years. Smith, a collegiate athlete in track and gymnastics, says she started teaching other students at Berry College in Rome in 1972.
“They called it calisthenics then,” she says. “We would be on the floor and do repetitive strength-based work, no cardio. It was leg lifts, side leg lifts, donkey kicks, sit-ups, pushups…that Jack LaLane stuff. It totally changed when Jane Fonda came out with her first video, which was cardio-based, movement versus strength. It has now progressed to a combination of strength and cardio.”
Smith acknowledges that videos of jazzercise actually came out before Fonda’s, but that they were dance-based. “The average person didn’t have the coordination to follow the dance steps, so Fonda’s system was more appealing.”
Boomers now are dealing with a wide spectrum of limitations that can be improved by a functional fitness routine. It varies from person to person, but when pressed to rank them, Smith doesn’t hesitate to put balance as number one. She is equally quick to rank strength as number two.
“But perhaps more important is confidence,” she suggests. “Some are scared to work out, because of the first two things. They don’t have the balance, they’re afraid they’ll fall, they don’t have the strength, they’re afraid they’ll look silly. Confidence may actually be the most important because if they don’t get into a class and try, they’ll never know they can do it.”
Smith has taught one-on-one, but she prefers group classes. “There is a big social aspect in group sessions,” she says. “Because of their age many seniors have a smaller circle of family and friends, they may live alone with no family nearby, they may not talk with anyone until they get to the class. At class they have people their own age to talk to, a lot of them go to lunch together.”
She says in her classes they have an email list. “If a person is not in class for a week, we’re going to check on them. We just want to make sure they’re ok.” She notes there have been instances where they have checked on someone not in class who did need help.
While Smith encourages group functional fitness, she also suggests low impact functional exercises to do at home.
“Short squats are a sit-stand, like you’re going to sit down but change your mind,” she suggests. This balance exercise can be done with a chair, or not, however Smith cautions, “Any time a balance exercise is being done, it should be done in the corner of a room, so a person has two walls to support them.”
Leg lunges are another important home exercise. “They don’t have to be deep. I tell people to think about making cookies and you want to peek at them, so how would you lunge to look in the oven window,” she says.
Upper body strength can safely be improved by doing pushups off the wall. “And I highly recommend single leg balance, where you stand on one foot for a minimum ten to twenty seconds, twice on each side, twice a day,” she says. Standing by a kitchen counter is a safe place to do it.
She’s most emphatic that older people practice getting up off the floor. “The number one reason people go into a nursing home is they can’t get up off the floor,” she says, noting that the effort to get off the floor requires comprehensive body power. “It’s core, it’s arm strength to push up off the floor, it’s leg strength to stand up, it’s general strength.”
While free weights are helpful in maintaining strength, common household items can be used. “Bicep curls can be done using cans, picking up books…some ladies can use their purses to lift…some of them weigh ten pounds,” she jokes. “Walk carrying a book in one hand and return carrying it in the other hand…different things to counterbalance the walking motion.”
She emphasizes that walking is still the best exercise, but if walking isn’t an option due to surgeries or physical limitations, “People could substitute with alternating knee lifts in a chair, which will strengthen thighs and improve hip flexibility,” she says.
The value of group exercise classes
As important as exercise is, Smith emphasizes, “There is more to life than exercise and group exercise can fulfill those additional needs. You’ve got to exercise your brain as well and just remembering peoples’ names in a class can be helpful. The socialization that occurs in group fitness can be immensely important in a person’s life.”
Pamela Brittingham, Fitness Coordinator at the Athens YWCO concurs. “People stop themselves from achieving higher levels of fitness by a “can’t do” attitude but people are stronger than they think,” she says, adding that the social aspects of group exercise help motivate people struggling with exercise.
“They see people in their own generation doing it so they figure they can do it too. Most people arrive 20 minutes before class and chit-chat, check in with each other and if someone isn’t there, they want to check up on them. It’s amazing to see how they rally around each other.”
Like the YMCA, the YWCO also offers functional fitness classes through Silver Sneakers, now called One Pass. “We’re not trying to make them body builders,” she emphasizes. “We just want them to function efficiently throughout the day without worrying about stairs or walking distances to get places.”
A t-shirt presented to YWCO members who complete 100 group workouts displays a quote from Newton’s First Law of Motion: “A body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion…” This includes the human body.
More colloquial sayings sum it up more succinctly, such as: If you rest you rust; or, Motion is lotion.
Despite the limitations or impairments that come with age, many Boomers are determined to keep moving and resist the rust.
Randy Gaddo is a recent retiree to Athens. He stays active through freelance writing and his music business, Boomerang: Music that keeps coming back.