By Morgan Rowe
Gail Miller has fond memories of spending hours as a child running around, dancing and playing sports. She describes herself as a tomboy.
Today at 62 years old she makes sure to keep active for both her mental and physical health.
Miller, like many senior citizens, has become more limited in what she can and cannot do.
“I liked the work-out,” Miller says. “It’s simply good for you. It’s good to keep the mind going.”
Now, Miller has arthritis in her toes and finds it difficult to walk for more than 15 minutes at a time.
But she stays active despite the occasional pain, taking as many fitness and dance courses as she can afford.
Miller is not alone. Fitness programs at the Good Companions Seniors’ Centre have been receiving a very positive response, according to day-centre director Sharon Oatway.
Although the centre offers other programs, such as Spanish and woodworking, fitness courses now make up almost half of its schedule.
“I think they can be a lot more popular because fitness is in everybody’s minds all the time,” says Oatway.
She says it is sometimes difficult for seniors to exercise.
Most fitness courses are not geared to their specific needs and medical problems can make it hard to exercise independently.
Seniors sometimes have difficulty finding places or times to exercise, especially given the icy sidewalks and cold temperatures in Ottawa.
The fear of injuring oneself while exercising can create a vicious cycle, says physiotherapist Sue Raven, since regular exercise can prevent and even treat many of the health problems seniors encounter.
Raven, who has been a physiotherapist for 36 years, says seniors face compounding physical changes.
Although it’s possible to have a genetic predisposition to certain ailments, changes in diet and long periods of inactivity can also cause anything from inflamed joints to the thinning out of bones to problems with balance.
Exercising regularly and getting enough calcium and vitamins are important for preventing medical problems and can help improve existing problems as well.
But not all exercises are equal, warns Raven.
For someone with weak bones, a weight-bearing activity, like walking, is best for strengthening bones.
But for someone with sore joints, the wear on the knee joints caused by walking can make the problem worse.
Raven says everyone has “red light, yellow light, and green light” activities.
The key is to do what feels good and stay away from anything causing pain.
“Your body will tell you a lot about what works and what doesn’t,” she says.
Miller says she ignores her pain every now and then in order to stay active.
She puts it aside and tries to enjoy herself, whether she’s running on a treadmill or learning Hawaiian dancing.
Programs like the ones offered at Good Companions are important, she says, because they push her to exercise but also because they give her a chance to meet new people.
Miller wishes more people – her age and younger – would start exercising sooner, if only to get into the habit.
“Joining something like this makes you leave your apartment. It makes you mingle,” she says.
“If I didn’t sign up for something, I’d likely stay in bed every morning.”