Life Health & Wellbeing

Thursday 20 June 2019

Keeping on the move - how to stay sharp and fit as we age

Fancy trying tai chi, Pilates or scidils? There's a huge variety of activities nowadays to help us stay sharp and fit as we age

Kathleen Devlin who runs Go For Life excercise classes. Photo: Frank McGrath
Kathleen Devlin who runs Go For Life excercise classes. Photo: Frank McGrath
Balancing act: Pilates teacher Anne Sexton. Photo: Fran Veale

Sharon Diviney

"Now, we're not good students, we're badly behaved," warns 78-year-old Pilates student Claire Chambers. "We tend to fool around a lot. But we have loads of fun."

The Wicklow woman's first brush with the exercising regime almost put her off it for life. "It was in a class only a 200-yard walk from home. When I came out, if there was a taxi passing I would have taken it. Whereas with Anne, you come out invigorated."

The Anne in question is Greystones-based Pilates instructor Anne Sexton, who runs two classes a week designed for older students. Pilates is useful for many issues associated with ageing, including balance, mobility, confidence, posture and bone density, says Anne. "We lose 1pc of bone density per year after the age of 40. That adds up, and people are not always aware of it. The huge risk to bone density is inactivity and unfortunately as we become older we become less active."

Pilates helps in this situation because, like any resistance training, force on the muscle tugs and pulls at the bone and increases bone density. "You also have the strengthening of the muscle which keeps the posture upright and balanced," explains Anne. "Pilates for older adults is set up in such a way that it's covering all the things that happen to the skeleton and posture as it ages."

Balancing act: Pilates teacher Anne Sexton. Photo: Fran Veale
Balancing act: Pilates teacher Anne Sexton. Photo: Fran Veale

The oldest person in Anne's class is 91, and the other students are in their 70s and 80s. The Pilates instructor says these classes are among the most rewarding to teach - and she makes an effort to introduce elements of fun each week. "As well as mobility and balance and confidence in moving without feeling they're going to fall over, it's the whole social thing for people who have retired. It's getting out - they have that hour to themselves where it's all about them, and then they can go and have their cup of coffee afterwards."

It was a local advertisement for Anne's age-friendly class that drew student Claire Chambers back to exercising. "We've all been doing it on and off depending on our state of health for the past few years," explains Claire of the class members. "Obviously to have reached the bus-pass age we aren't totally unblemished, most of us have some crocking of some sort. But Anne is so good in that it's non-competitive. She says you just work to as far as you can go. Don't look at the others, just do it.

"Some of us seem to revert to a sort of second childhood or something because we get the fits of the giggles and so on. We have a lot of fun. But seriously, Anne gets us thinking about why we should be doing it. Quite a few of us are on our own now. She asks, 'What happens if you fall? Can you get up off the ground without having to call for help?' Which is very important.

"She did try at one point to see if we could lose weight, but that I don't think really worked very well. Partly because I always repeat what my mother told me - it was better to widen than to wizen!"

In north Dublin, 67-year-old Kathleen Devlin is a physical activity leader with Go For Life, an Age & Opportunity initiative run in partnership with the HSE and Sport Ireland's local sport partnerships. "We have two mornings," explains Kathleen. "We start off with the warm-up, which is done sitting down. And then an activity of 'getting to know', where people have to actually speak to each other. You have to be mindful and make sure the chairs are good, and the floor is clean. And we can only do it to a certain standard of exercise that everyone in the group can manage, because we'd have from ages 55 up to 90."

The ancient martial art of qi qong is one of the more popular activities in the group. "The ladies absolutely adore it. Because it's all done to the mindful music - the birds whistling and the water flowing - and they love that."

It was Kathleen's sister Ceppie who encouraged her to get involved in the exercise element of the social group. "I wanted to do singing, but Ceppie said, 'Ah come on, you'll enjoy it.' And I actually did. I was after spending my life minding grandkids, looking after my mother up until she went into a nursing home and died, and doing all kinds of things where you never get a break. This was my chance so I really took all of the Go For Life programme on board."

Age & Opportunity's Go For Life project manager is Mary Harkin. She organises workshops to teach leaders like Kathleen how to relay functional fitness for older people. The focus is on improving strength, balance, aerobic fitness, co-ordination and range of movement, all done through fun activities, dances and games. "People can come and do the workshops and it's a unique form of peer leadership really," says Mary. "We give them lots of resources to take back to their groups, and to style it in a way that suits the group and the hall they have. Any social group of older people can apply to us for a small grant to buy equipment or to try out a new sport such as tai chi, swimming, aqua aerobics or cricket."

The Go For Life national games are held in DCU every summer. Events include flisk, a tossing game with discs, scidils, based on ten-pin bowling and málaí, adapted from the American cornhole game where you toss a beanbag. "They're based on traditional sports, but we've adapted them to be easy for a big group to play with a minimum of equipment and a maximum of fun," explains Mary. "We were thinking that there might be a little ICA group that meets in a small hall with only one cupboard to keep the equipment in. So you don't have to buy too much equipment, it's not too heavy to be thrown in the boot of the car if that's necessary, or it can be stored in a small place and it's not going to cost too much money."

Back in the Pilates studio, Anne Sexton makes her students laugh by getting them to start off the class by pretending to be ballerinas working at the barre. "If it's one thing we're all guaranteed, it's to get old, and we should all be very proud to get old because not everyone gets there," says Anne. "But as we age, it's really important that everyone stays as fit and active as they can. We tend to do the opposite - we tend to stop moving as we get older, which is a disaster."

Health and fitness guru, and Health & Living columnist, Karl Henry agrees. "Just realise that you're never too old to start!" he advises. "Even if you've never exercised before, just start slow, build it up slowly, and above all, find an exercise that you enjoy.

"Avoid doing too much too soon. That's the biggest mistake that most people make. You risk injury, pain and turning the whole experience into a negative." And what about fuel for the body that's busy with all this activity? "Aim for colour on your plate," says Karl. "Protein with at least two meals, lots of water - and the odd treat."

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