Staying in shape, boomer style

Joyce Hough always has been a person on the go. So when she retired from her cleaning job at Gateway Center in 2007, she had no intention of becoming a couch potato. 

“People kept asking, ‘What are you going to do?’ ” she recalls.

Spend more time with her family, for starters, which today includes 13 grandkids and seven great-grandchildren. But the Oakland resident also wanted to make sure she stayed young, in both mind and body, as she aged. She decided to start a regular exercise program at the Downtown YMCA on the Boulevard of the Allies “to keep the bones together.”

She took to it like the proverbial duck to water.

A decade later, the 76-year-old is still going to exercise class. Five days a week she heads to the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill, where she practices yoga to improve her strength and balance, and works with weights to build her upper body. She also walks the track every morning before class — anywhere from 2 to 4 miles.

“I just knew this would keep me going,” she says, “and I really enjoy it. It keeps me limber.”

Ms. Hough is in good company. Close to 200 older adults work up a sweat in JCC senior fitness classes each month, says Sybil Lieberman, center director. Hundreds more come to the center to lift weights, swim laps or run on the treadmill.

“Our people are much more educated on health, and are trying to navigate the best way to do this,” says Ms. Lieberman, “and that often starts with classes or going to the gym.”

Designed specifically for older adults and taught by certified instructors, the classes at JCC are offered through Silver & Fit and SilverSneakers, free fitness programs provided by insurance programs for adults 65 and older. Participants, along with JCC members, also have access to the center’s indoor swimming pools and general locker rooms.

And if you don’t live in the city?  Both programs are offered at dozens of health clubs and community centers in Allegheny and surrounding counties, including the YMCA of Greater Pittsburgh’s 16 locations and senior citizen centers such as Vintage in East Liberty. 

The programs — SilverSneakers is offered through Highmark while Silver & Fit is offered through the UPMC Health Plan —  focus on improving strength, mobility and cardiovascular health. Classes are designed for different levels of fitness and each lasts about an hour. 

Inactivity doubles the risk of mobility limitations as people grow older, and baby boomers in particular want to set the exercise habit early, before they feel the affects of aging, says Vintage executive director Ann Truxell.

Countless studies show the benefits of physical exercise — it’s good for your heart, builds muscle, reduces the chances of experiencing a stroke or becoming diabetic, and it also lessens the risk of falling, “which is huge for older adults,” says Ms. Truxell. 

But it also can improve a boomer’s emotional and social health.  Another risk factor of getting older is social isolation. “We lose partners through divorce or death and kids move away,” she says, “and that has a lot of physical consequences.”

At Vintage and other centers that cater to mature adults, friendships are forged. “You’re with your peers, and there is this cascading affect of starting an activity and getting engaged in broader things,” says Ms. Truxell, such as lunch dates and group trips. “They come and get hooked.”

And it’s not just women who are filling class rosters. Men like Desmond Collins of Highland Park also see the benefit of regular exercise. Originally from Michigan, Mr. Collins moved to the area a year ago to live with his daughter. “And I didn’t know anyone,” he says. 

So when he heard about Vintage, he says, “I thought I’d give it a whirl, because I was just sitting around.”

The 83-year-old now goes to the center three days a week to do hand exercises, “and we have a lot of conversations where we compare our problems. The social aspect is great.”

At Healthtrax Fitness & Wellness in Bethel Park, dance fitness classes are especially popular with boomers. “They grew up dancing or doing aerobics, and it’s bringing them back to being loose and having fun,” says fitness director Peggy Gregor. 

That follows the industry trend of more movement-based training. It used to be people exercised to improve their fitness level but now it’s also about retaining one’s ability to move well, easily and without pain.

Yoga, which can minimize hypertension and stress while promoting good bone health, is another crowd-pleaser, and Ms. Gregor says older adults also are drawn to aquatics, particularly when arthritis sets in or balance is an issue.

For Ms. Hough, the type of class she takes doesn’t matter so much as the fact they allow her to keep moving.

“I love them all,” she says. “I don’t feel like I’ve slowed down, and that means a whole lot.”

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1410 or on Twitter @gtmckay. 


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