Kathy Glazer-Chow likes her workouts to be challenging. So, the 71-year-old often ends her three-times-a-week training sessions with several sets of bicep curls using 20-pound weights or some 35-pound kettlebell lifts.
“I always tell my trainer I want to be the senior GI Jane,” says Ms. Glazer-Chow with a chuckle, referring to the iconic movie starring Demi Moore as an astoundingly ripped female U.S. Navy Seal recruit.
The Toronto retiree was a mid-life convert to the benefits of physical fitness, getting active as a 48-year-old mother with a six- and eight-year-old. She’s since completed the 200-kilometre Ride to Conquer Cancer eight times and walks daily, but it is in recent years that she’s started to appreciate the real impact of her choices.
“It makes me feel better. It makes me feel strong. It gives [me] self-confidence,” Ms. Glazer-Chow says.
When her husband was diagnosed with diabetes, he was reluctant to go to a gym.
“He didn’t like the way he looked. Now he is so cut and muscled at 69, it’s frightening,” she says. “He had to get over that mindset, you know, that I’m embarrassed to go because I don’t want people to look at me because I’m older.”
That was 20 years ago. They’ve converted a room in their house to a gym and she does workouts there several times a week with her trainer.
“The payoff is you feel strong; you are strong,” she says. “I mean, I’m 71; people tell me I look 60 and I feel 40.”
Studies are unequivocal: fitness activity has immeasurable physical and mental benefits for aging well and the Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommend adults 65 years or older get at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every week, like brisk walking, cycling, swimming or any activity that makes you breathe harder and increases the heart rate.
But according to the most recent Participaction Adult Activity Report Card, only 19 per cent of 50- to 64-year-old adults and 15 per cent of 65- to 79-year-old adults do so.
The guidelines also recommend muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises such as weight or resistance training at least twice a week.
“We tend to become a bit more sedentary with age and definitely engage in less physical activity,” says Leigh Vanderloo, an exercise scientist at Participaction, a national non-profit organization that promotes healthy living and physical fitness.
The pandemic made it worse initially for older adults who were more vulnerable to the virus and therefore encouraged to stay home and self-isolate.
“Because of that, we saw an even steeper decline in any type of movement, particularly among this group,” she says. “Absent those opportunities, people were feeling more stressed; their sleep was worse, they were feeling more overwhelmed, they reported increased symptoms of anxiety and depression, feeling more isolated.”
And not just physical health is affected, Dr. Vanderloo says. People felt the loss of community and social connection that comes with activity.
“The pandemic really kind of shined a light on just how important that is,” she says.
Her advice for all adults is to simply make an effort to move every day.
“More is always better, but something is better than nothing. Just start off with trying to move your body every day.”
There are many free online resources, including Participaction’s own library of fitness videos for all abilities and ages, Dr. Vanderloo adds.
Canada has a large cohort of baby boomers now entering retirement age, and she says they want to continue living independently.
“One of the ways to do that is to ensure regular active movement every single day, as much as we can,” Dr. Vanderloo says. “And it’s something to be thinking about even if you’re not yet in that age group.”
Erin Billowits founded Toronto-based Vintage Fitness, a gym for people 50-plus, 16 years ago, foreseeing the current surge in baby boomers looking to stay healthy as they age.
“I started to work with a group of seniors and just really enjoyed the type of goals that they had. It felt more rewarding to help someone live independently in their home or get strong enough for a trip they wanted to take to visit their brother in Italy,” she says. “I just found it really motivating and inspiring.”
Most Vintage Fitness clients, one of whom is Ms. Glazer-Chow, are over 65 and there are some in their early 90s, she says. Most are looking to stay fit enough to travel – lift luggage and climb stairs – or to play with their grandkids, she says.
One 93-year-old client even kept up her workouts virtually during the pandemic.
“One of her goals was to get back to golf and she did it. And she says she’s shooting straighter,” says Ms. Billowits. “She’s willing to try. At 93, who says, ‘I’m going to try virtual training on a screen?’ She amazes me.”
Often, it’s mindset that holds people back, she says, and one focus of training is to give clients the confidence to set ambitious goals.
“I want to give them confidence to reach for something and not just think ‘I’m old, I’m going to sit back and relax,’ because that’s the worst thing they can possibly do,” she says.
Like Dr. Vanderloo, she says there are myriad online programs and resources as well as free introductory lessons and equipment sessions at most gyms.
People with a heart condition, diabetes, or who are experiencing dizziness may want to consult a doctor before starting a rigorous routine. Still, some gentle exercise like walking and stretching is fine, she says.
“For 90 per cent of the population – just start. Our bodies were meant to move,” Ms. Billowits says. “It’s a mindset thing. You don’t have to be intimidated at all. It can be as gentle as it needs to be and it should get harder as your body gets stronger.”
Ms. Glazer-Chow suffered an accident two years ago that left her with a broken leg. As she was beginning to mend, she had knee surgery from which she is still recovering.
But her workout routine has been a lifesaver, she says, physically and mentally.
“It’s gotten me through some very dark times.