AMES, Iowa – Growing up, Dana Christensen would tag along with her mom, a respiratory therapist, as she made home visits to see older patients. Those trips gave the Iowa State University senior an appreciation for working with older adults and inspired her decision to one day work as a wellness coordinator of a retirement community or assisted living facility.
It also explains why Christensen volunteered to be part of the Active Aging Week kickoff event at the Iowa State Alumni Center. A group of students in Deb Power’s exercise leadership course will help with assessments during the event to gauge balance, strength and the overall physical fitness of older adults. Christensen not only got involved for the experience, but to help others see the benefits of exercise.
“It’s helping promote healthy years of life. People are living longer, but are they healthy, are they active, are they moving or are they in assisted living where they can’t do a lot of things on their own?” Christensen said.
Power, a senior lecturer in kinesiology, said Active Aging Week is one of several opportunities she tries to provide for students to help them gain experience in the field. Students who want to be personal trainers, lead fitness classes or work in a clinical setting are seeing the value in prescribing exercise for older adults, she said.
“There are more older adults who are beginning exercise programs later in life. This is a great opportunity for students to get involved in simple assessments to help educate older adults about the value of exercise, and it helps the students practice interacting with that population,” Power said.
Living longer, living healthier
The definition of exercise shifts as people age. For older adults, a fitness program is less about training to run a 5K and more focused on improving mobility and strength to do daily activities and maintain their independence.
“They see value in maintaining muscular strength and bone density, as well as reducing fall risk and increasing core strength to increase stability,” Power said. “The exercise portion is more functional activity for that population. By learning simple things they can do to maintain strength, flexibility and balance and reduce all health risks, they understand the benefits, so more are participating in exercise programs.”
Students in Power’s class see the difference exercise can make with members of their own family.
“My grandma is in her 80s and she’s more active and in better health than 60-year-old people I know,” said Matthew Haynes, a senior kinesiology major. “I have other family members who are not as active, and quite a bit younger, and they have huge health problems.”
It is never too late to start an exercise program, but active aging is something everyone should think about, said Jennifer Margrett, associate professor and director of the gerontology program at Iowa State.
“Aging starts when we’re born. It is never too late to see the benefits of lifestyle changes; however, if individuals don’t think about exercise and diet and brain health until they are 65, they are missing out on an opportunity to set a solid foundation for later life. We all need to be thinking about better ways to be healthier and optimize development and aging from a much earlier age,” Margrett said.
The Active Aging Week kickoff is from 6-9 p.m. Monday, Sept. 16, at the Iowa State Alumni Center. The event is free and open to the public. Students will assist trainers in providing fitness assessments and there will be information on fitness programs for older adults.