In an exercise studio in the Medical Park of the Anne Arundel Medical Center, the senior fitness buffs step to the beat of the big bands of the '40s, and the Top 40s of the '90s. The music may be manic or mellow, but, "We don't do it like Jane Fonda," says fitness instructor Margaret Lynch. "We're very careful; there's no bouncing, and we make sure they don't overwork."
In fact, the routines are screened by physical therapists, she says. But although it's a low-impact, no-pain, no-strain class, it's still aerobic exercise, with the sustained, rhythmic movement that strengthens the cardiovascular system, burns calories, and keeps the body mobile.
In recent years, even as a growing body of research has shown that seniors can reap the benefits of exercise, seniors are finding more and more opportunities for doing so. Hospitals and colleges sponsor fitness classes for older people; enclosed shopping malls play host to supervised walking programs; and commercial video-makers offer exercise tapes by the still glamourous Cyd Charisse, and by groups that call themselves the "Dancin' Grannies" and the "Silver Foxes."
For Mae Brady, 57 1/2 , of Edgewater, 1 1/2 years of "Senior Fit" aerobics in the Anne Arundel Medical Center program has meant reducing the size of her thighs and improving her lipid profile -- her balance of "good" HDL cholesteral compared to the "bad" LDL cholesterol. "I feel just wonderful!" she exclaims.
"Exercise keeps you fit, and it keeps you young," says Jay Bennett, Ph.D., assistant professor of exercise physiology at Coppin State College and leader of the senior aerobics course sponsored by Union Memorial Hospital in cooperation with its neighborhood senior center, known as Action In Maturity.
Exercise improves heart and lung function, increases strength, flexibility, coordination and balance, helps with weight control, maintains bone density, and prevents the deterioration of muscle and skeletal tissues that results from disuse, according to Dr. Cindy Jurss, a specialist in rehabilitation medicine at the Greenspring Valley Medical and Sports Rehabilitation Center. "It also helps with management of hypertension and diabetes and bowel regulation," she adds.
"It's a natural human activity, good for everybody, old and young. For almost anything you can name, any problem, syndrome, or disease, I can tell you some way regular exercise can make you feel better," says Lois Walden, a registered nurse and certified fitness instructor at Baltimore County General Hospital, whose activity programs include the "Wellness Workout" for older and physically limited participants.
Ms. Walden also designs and directs the 4 1/2 -minute "Seniorobics" segments that are aired three times a day on Channel 24. These are not workouts so much as instructions that can be applied to working out -- how to get down on the floor and how to get back up again, for instance; or how to mobilize arthritic joints; or how to strengthen the abdominals.
"It's for people who haven't exercised, to let their bodies know what it feels like," she says.
Exercise does not require that you go to class, of course: You can just go out and walk instead. Striding for fitness is a low-impact activity, which means no jumping; it requires no great outlay of money, aside from the cost of your walking shoes, and you can regulate the intensity -- meaning how hard you have to work at it -- just by going faster or slower.
But, unless you're doing it with a buddy or two, you miss the social benefits that formal programs provide.
Moreover, in a well-directed class for seniors, you're likely to get a complete, supervised workout, with a warm up and stretch at the beginning and a cool down and stretch at the end, and a variety of routines that improve your flexibility, strength, coordination and balance as well as your aerobic conditioning.
"Any moderately vigorous aerobic activity which places demand on the muscles to contract and relax, is strengthening," Dr. Jurss says. "Some aerobics activities may also include light hand or wrist weights, but even just lifting the weight of the arm is a strengthening activity."
Lifting or lowering the arms or legs is also an activity that increases or decreases the intensity of the workout, says Ms. Walden. "You can change the intensity of the workout by reach or distance," she continues. "If you use your arms at all, you increase the intensity. How high you lift your knee can change the intensity. You can teach seven levels of people in the same class, if the instructor repeatedly shows the different levels of intensity."
In an organized aerobic exercise program, you also get pizazz. "Working with seniors, you have to think 'simplicity' and 'adventure,' or they get bored," says Dr. Bennett, who is also technical coordinator of the fitness workshop at Coppin, where he directs a weight-training class that enrolls people of all ages, elders included.