GARY SYME discusses how his exercise programme, ‘Born Again Bodies’, combined with a healthy diet, can help older people can stay fit and healthy.

Fred Astaire, American dancer, singer, and actor, once said, “Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”

So, according to Fred, NOW – whether you’re 35 or 95 – has to be a good time to start.

How ‘Born Again Bodies’ came about

I was late arriving at a church service – the congregation were rising to sing.

Although they were finally standing, not one of the congregation had actually stood in the way that nature intended, by leg strength alone. Some of those present in the church that day had pulled themselves to their feet with the help of the seat in front or they had helped their depleted thigh muscles by bringing their arms into play and pushing down on their knees; some were even helped to their feet by those who had already made the ascent. It was that moment that started me on the path to founding the Born Again Bodies exercise programme.

What does the programme entail?

Born Again Bodies is a programme for anyone who can still do their own shopping and put it away, so it is ideal for people in retirement villages. The classes operating in Knightsbridge and Mayfair retirement villages on Auckland’s North Shore have been well received and there are plans to expand the service to Poynton village and other sites this year.

All that is needed for the Born Again Bodies programme is a pair of dumbbells and a chair.

The programme consists of a selection of resistance exercises with light dumbbells, plus an optional 10-minute session at the end of the programme doing selected Tai Chi-like exercises for balance, co-ordination, and flexibility.

The exercises with dumbbells have been selected to provide the best and safest way to maintain or increase muscle and bone mass and strength. The weight used by each participant varies according to their ability.

Participants are also encouraged to walk several times a week to improve their cardiovascular fitness. ‘Catch-up’ walking involves periods of faster walking within the participant’s comfort zone.

The exercises involving the Tai Chi-like movements are added as an option only at the end of each session to improve the participant’s balance, co-ordination, and leg strength to help minimise the danger of falls.

When asked about exercise, most people will say: I go for a walk. The question is: walking is great exercise, but is it enough?

Afraid not. There are plenty of marathon runners who struggle to get out of a chair, and certainly struggle to squat down on the floor and get up again. This is because a certain amount of muscle is needed to get out of a chair. In a marathon, or when walking, you need aerobic fitness; strength becomes irrelevant beyond a certain point. Your muscles adapt to your requirements. The bend in your knee when you walk is minimal (take a look at it), but when you get up from a chair it is a full 90 degrees. When we are down to a shuffle, there is no bend at all, and therefore not much work is being done by those once powerful thigh muscles. From there, it is a downhill slide to increasing immobility.

Having said that, there is no doubt that, apart from its cardiovascular value, walking is also a weight-bearing exercise, and as such, it will help to maintain bone density in the legs. For this reason alone, it is far better than doing nothing. However, people would not be struggling to get up from their seats, beds, and toilets if it was as simple as that. When you get up from a 90 degree knee-bend squat, you are lifting 80 per cent of your body weight to a standing position.

The evidence is there that cardiovascular fitness, or ‘huff and puff’ fitness as I like to call it, will help you live longer, but there is also no doubt that weight-training or the ‘push and pull’ stuff will help you get to your feet and enable you to put the groceries on the top shelf. One of the problems arising as people live longer lives is the proportion of those years lived with the assistance of others.

Doing both ‘huff and puff’ and ‘push and pull’ exercise along with exercise to improve balance and co-ordination will help you to live not only longer, but also more active lives. There is no single form of exercise that fits our body’s needs. As the eminent psychologist, Abraham Maslow, once said, “To the man who only has a hammer in his tool kit, every problem looks like a nail.”

The benefits of exercise for older people

Consider this: from our mid-thirties, if we are not doing resistance exercises, we lose approximately 150 grams of muscle a year. In terms of muscle mass, we are wasting away. So inevitably, we no longer have the strength to do the things we used to do, such as lifting objects from the floor or hopping out of bed in the morning. As we get older, we consider all this loss of muscle and associated strength to be inevitable. But it isn’t. Nor is all the associated bone loss. Nor is the loss of balance, nor the loss of flexibility. With age, we gradually do lose these things, but not at the rate most people are losing them right now – through lack of knowledge, lack of action, and lack of self-belief. The fact is you can lose muscle mass at any age. However, it is possible to slow – or better still – reverse these losses.

The good news is not only can you maintain your strength at almost any age, but you can also increase it. So, too, can you increase your bone density and improve your balance and flexibility along the way. The more research that is done into the advantages of resistance exercise in those over 50, the more the benefits appear to be endless; not just the physical benefits but also the benefits to our mental health and our quality of life.

The exercises with dumbbells have been selected to provide the best and safest way to maintain or increase muscle mass and strength. Because exercises with weights also help us maintain or increase our bone density, you get two health advantages for the price of one. In fact you get more advantages than just these two, but these are the two biggies in terms of bodily strength and function.

Exercises with weights strengthen your muscles, your bones, your tendons, and your ligaments. In fact every cell in your body becomes more active. The outcome is greater bodily health. Add these “resistance exercises” to your exercises for co-ordination, flexibility, and cardiovascular fitness and you take your body out of reverse and put it into forward gear.

Decreased strength and co-ordination increases the risk of falls and fractures.

It could be said that people today are living longer than ever before. However, sad to say, in terms of active living, many older people are not so much living longer as dying longer. Without the muscle and the strength to maintain their independence, they are dependent on the help of others. And the length of their dependency has increased along with their lifespan.

Eating well

Exercise and diet go hand in hand and it is important to keep healthy eating in check. We tend to eat less as we get older, and although this may sound like a good thing in a time of increasing obesity, less food often means less of the right kind of food.

There are certain materials your body needs in larger quantities than others. You need protein for your muscles, you need calcium for your bones, and you need carbohydrates and oils (preferably the good ones) as fuel and in maintenance of important areas of your body chemistry. You also need fibre to move things along the supply chain. And then, of course, you need water to keep it all afloat.

Because protein is plentifully available in fish, lean meat, eggs, and milk products as well in nuts and vegetable sources such as beans and tofu, it should be easy to get a reasonable quantity, but everyone needs to examine their diets to ensure that theirs is adequate.

When it comes to our calcium intake, it is a bit more difficult. Milk products are great in this regard because not only do they supply the protein you need, but they also provide the calcium. So, low fat milk, yoghurt, and low fat cheeses are good things to go for; cottage cheese is a particularly good choice. If you are a person who avoids or eats few of these products, then calcium-enriched fruit juices and tinned sardines and salmon (which include bones) will provide calcium. Some vegetables high in calcium content are broccoli, spinach, and other leafy green vegetables. Nuts, particularly almonds, are also high in calcium.

When it comes to carbohydrates or oils, most of us may in fact be overdoing it. Complex carbohydrates are the best for prolonged energy, and we can get enough of these from a healthy diet of fruit and vegetables. Most of us include bread or potatoes in our daily food intake as well. The best oils (fats) are derived from a few nuts and good cooking oils such as rice bran oil, olive oil, canola, and grape seed. Omega-3 fish oils are also being promoted for their health-giving properties. Apart from taking these as a supplement in the form of capsules, an occasional meal of salmon is a good source of the Omega-3 components.

Then there is water. The important point is that our bodies contain and use an awful lot of water. Water maintains normal blood flow to the machinery of our body. Lack of water causes confusion and fatigue. Urine becomes abnormally concentrated, and lack of water causes problems with digestion and normal bowel motions, and much, much more.

As we get older, the fat content of our bodies will increase, and – if we let it – the muscle content will decrease, so that in old age the body may contain only 50 per cent or less water, as against the 60–70 per cent of earlier days. So, if we maintain or increase our muscle mass, we also store more water, maintain a more functional body, and burn up more fat.

But whether our bodies are 45 or 70 per cent water, they need topping up on a regular basis, because water is required to keep us at the right temperature and to move nutrients and oxygen around the body and to remove waste. Water also acts as a shock absorber around vulnerable areas, including our joints.

Vitamin C is also important, but it shouldn’t be a problem if plenty of fruit and vegetables are eaten on a daily basis. Whole fruits and berries are good sources of Vitamin C. In winter, when the choices of fruit are limited, you may want to look at taking a Vitamin C supplement.

Keep in mind that adequate protein, carbohydrate, calcium, and water are biggies, and can’t be easily contained in a capsule or tablet. There are some high-volume calcium supplements, but protein or carbohydrate supplements come in a form that requires spoonfuls at the very least.

A word on Vitamin D

Vitamin D is also something we need to think about. We need it to facilitate the use of calcium in bone building. We get Vitamin D from the action of the sun on our skin. So, we need to spend at least some time outdoors, preferably in the morning or evening when the sun is less intense. Avoid sunburn. In our pursuit of healthier bodies, our outside activities, including our catch-up walking, can serve more than one purpose. There is also an increasing number of products fortified with Vitamin D, principally milk and milk products. You can also speak to your doctor about Vitamin D supplements.

We also need Vitamin D to maintain the strength of our muscles, particularly fast twitch muscle, which helps us stop ourselves from falling. Without sufficient Vitamin D we lose fast twitch muscle faster as we get older.

Gary Syme, the creator of Born Again Bodies, is a 75-year-old pharmacist who worked for 23 years in the Public Health Directorate of the Ministry of Health. He has had an interest in health and fitness all his life. He has been a personal fitness instructor, a weight lifter, a runner-up light heavyweight wrestling champion, and he also has a black belt in Shotokan Karate. Gary is also a cancer survivor and a man with bilateral knee replacements – so he knows about some of the disadvantages that come with age.

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