MILWAUKEE (AP) — The fitness instructor is about to start pushups, but first she has to move her walker out of the way. The exercisers at this suburban apartment complex are all over 75 and their leader, Hildegard Gigl, will turn 99 in June.
"I'm getting older but I'm not getting old," said Gigl, whose half-hour class includes pushups against a wall and weightlifting with soup cans to "In the Mood" and other Big Band tunes.
Exercise may be the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth, one of the best ways to age happy and well.
"The mantra now is, exercise is a drug" — able, like some medications are, to prevent and treat a host of age-related ailments, said Dr. Andrea Cheville, a Mayo Clinic expert on exercise in the elderly.
Exercise aids weight control, healthy cholesterol, blood pressure, mood and sleep. It lowers the risk for cancer, brittle bones and Alzheimer's disease. One of the most recent studies found that walking farther or faster after age 65 — increasing activity rather than slowing down in older age — helps maintain a good heart rhythm and prevent heart attacks.
Even conditions like back pain and arthritis, which many people cite as reasons they don't exercise, often can be helped by doing that very thing.
The message is catching on. Adults 50 and older — baby boomers — are the fastest growing segment of membership, said Cindy McDermott of Y-USA, the parent organization for the nation's YMCA programs, such as the one used at the Milwaukee apartment complex.
Senior programs emphasize moves that help people live independently. Wall pushups maintain strength and dexterity to open doors; raising arms behind the head "to imitate zipping your dress or combing your hair" help those with arthritis groom themselves, McDermott explained.
"What attracts older adults is quality of life. They want to be able to lift their grandchildren," she said.