We tend to accept a loss of strength as an unavoidable side effect of growing old, but most of the decline in strength we observe in older people is due to a lack of training, not the ageing process per se, says Helsinki University Research (HUR) Finland CEO, Mats Manderbacka.

“It’s more physiological than biological,” he explains, citing examples of people in their eighties and nineties who are climbing mountains, running marathons and taking part in body building contests.

Mats has been in New Zealand for the launch of the Selwyn Foundation’s new Strength and Wellness studio in Auckland.

The studio is the first in this country to adopt the new generation of computerised HUR equipment that aims to improve strength, balance and physical ability in older people, reduce the risk of falls and enhance overall quality of life.

A firm proponent of ‘exercise as medicine’, Mats cites a recent 15-year cohort study that concluded that “strength training is significantly associated with decreased overall mortality”.

“Older adults who strength trained at least twice a week had 45 percent lower odds of death for any reason than those who did not,” he says.

“They also had 41 percent lower odds of cardiac death and 19 percent lower odds of dying from cancer.”

Progressive resistance and balance training have also been proven to reduce the risk of falls by 55 per cent.

“This equipment can have a real, positive impact on health outcomes, including mental health,” says John Ashley, Selwyn Community’s Chief Operating Officer.

“Having a lower risk of falls leads to increased independence and more confidence in getting out and about, so enriching older people’s general quality of life.”

Mats cautions that carers can accelerate a person’s decline by providing aids, such as walkers and stairlifts, instead of building strength, through training.  “The issue isn’t the stairs, it’s the leg strength.”

He emphasises that appropriate, easily adaptable equipment that allows people to exercise gently and safely at their own pace and ability is crucial.

HUR’s computerised machines automatically adjust sets, reps, resistance and heart rate limit for individual users and record all activity for automatic reporting and feedback.

“The HUR equipment identifies issues with people’s gait and balance, so we can address any areas of weakness and adjust exercise plans to each person’s unique needs,” explains John. “Because it uses air resistance, there’s also no need to manage changing weights or tricky pins.”

And while the weights found in many gyms start at 5kg (a weight research has found the majority of older people struggle to lift), HUR equipment begins with close to zero load and increases automatically by 100g increments.

John describes the new Strength and Wellness studio at Selwyn Heights Village as being an intimate, non-intimidating exercise space, more like a yoga studio than a gym. “There are no mirrors and no lycra!”

Available to older adults living in the local community, following an individual assessment by the Studio’s onsite Clinical Exercise Physiologist, the Hillsborough studio is the first of many, says John.

Like many countries, in New Zealand there appears to be a big gap between high-end research into the benefits of strength training and practical implementation in the community, says John.

“New Zealand is playing catch-up in this area.”

In addition to opening the studio, The Selwyn Foundation has become the distributor of HUR equipment in New Zealand. John hopes to see it picked up by other aged care providers, community gyms and research centres.

A charitable trust, The Selwyn Foundation delivers a broad range of services through its Selwyn Community arm to help older people living in the wider community stay active, healthy and socially connected.

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