“Get off your butt.”
That was the advice for healthy aging that UCLA Medical Center executive Shannon O’Kelley offered to an enthusiastic crowd in 2013. The assemblage had gathered to greet the northern California motorcycle riders who’d just driven their Taiwanese counterparts down the coast of Highway 1 from San Francisco in a show of international solidarity.
His comment illuminates an often-overlooked aspect of health when it comes to aging.
Whether it’s partner dancing, yoga, walking, riding motorcycles or climbing trees, older adults are sustaining good health and reducing chronic disease by getting off their butts in newly creative ways that emphasize flexibility rather than sweaty exercise or muscle-bound weightlifting.
“We’re mostly under-moved,” writes renowned movement expert Katy Bowman in her new book Dynamic Aging published this week. “And not at all too old.”
The emphasis is on movement … not exercise.
After working with thousands of clients spanning athletes to pregnant mothers, Bowman has gained an intimate understanding of human mechanics and aging.
“We are far better off moving regularly instead of just those 30 minutes five times a week,” says Bowman, author of the blog Nutritious Movement. “Physical activity rather than exercise.”
She co-authored Dynamic Aging with four women in their 70’s – her “goldeners” – who worked with her regularly and made astonishing gains in dexterity, flexibility and core strength.
“They are some of the few of their own peer group who haven’t made a transition into senior living centers,” writes Bowman. “They move ‘younger’ than they did years ago. I regularly tell people this is possible – that they can look, move and feel younger.”
The exercises: foundational footwork, proper posture, practicing falls and many others.
“I began to understand my body from a biomechanical point of view,” writes co-author Joyce Faber. “This whole-body model of wellness has taught me that our health is influenced more by our habits – the way we use, load and live in our body – than by our age.”
Most important, says Bowman, physical improvement leads to a cascading series of other benefits. Overall health improves, fear of falling lessens and social circles widen, contributing to improved overall health.
“They’re able to engage in their community more socially,” she says, “because they’re stronger.”
Bowman has long bemoaned today’s sedentary lifestyle fostered by a world of conveniences, such as TV remotes and microwave cooking. Her work centers on making movement a habit throughout the day: walking barefoot, cooking your own food, fixing your own stuff.
“Movement is essential medicine,” agrees Dr. Scott Kaiser, director of innovation at the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which offers an impressive array of movement opportunities from chair yoga to warm water therapy at its Los Angeles site. “In fact, movement is often the single most effective therapy in preventing and treating a variety of age-associated conditions.”
Kaiser typically “prescribes” various forms of movement therapy to all of his patients, even those who are bed bound.
One of the most unique movement programs anywhere is Conductorcise.
Blending classical music, education and humor, the hour-long workout places older adults in the role of symphony conductor. Sitting or standing, participants wave their arms to the music of Beethoven, Bizet, Tchaikovsky and other classical giants while listening to stories about their lives — the funnier the better.
“A lot of people just don’t want to do anything that’s so formal,” says David Dworkin, conductor and Julliard-trained clarinetist who created the vigorous workout as a natural extension of his love for running, hiking and tennis. “More and more want to do things outside the gym.”
Dworkin intends Conductorcise to be a total workout for mind, body, soul and funny bone. It’s now used at hundreds of sites around the country, including retirement communities and senior centers.
One is Paradise Valley Estates in Fairfield, California, where about 20 residents in assisted living and skilled nursing take the weekly class. There are no strict guidelines.
“There’s no check list on proper form or breathing,” says Janet Olson, the site’s fitness and living well manager. “The residents really thrive in that kind of setting … They’re much more positive and uplifted at the end of each class.”
Movement of all kinds is being heralded for its health and healing benefits.
Dance is increasingly seen as one of them.
One study claims that partner dancing – swing, tango, salsa – is the ideal aging exercise because it challenges both body and brain.
Meanwhile, modern dance choreographer Mark Morris created Dance for PD (Parkinson’s disease) to alleviate symptoms of the neurodegenerative disease. The program is now offered in over 100 communities around the world.
Sprung from UC San Francisco’s Department of Performing Arts and Social Justice, Dance Generators is a popular intergenerational dance troupe that spans four generations. And startups like Dance4healing, based in the Silicon Valley, are targeting older adult illness.
Meanwhile, there’s mounting evidence heralding the simplest form of exercise.
“A few years ago I just started walking,” says Larry Wallack, an avowed non-exerciser who recently discussed his experiences for the Age Without Borders Virtual Summit. “I realized I might have 20, 25 or 30 years left, and if I wasn’t fully mobile that would be difficult to deal with.”
Besides losing 20 pounds in his first seven months, Wallack – emeritus professor of public health from UC Berkeley and now at Portland State University – discovered other health benefits: more energy, an improved immune system and relief from the lower back pain he’s experienced most of his adult life.
Walking, it turned out, improved every part of his life.
“It’s become part of who I am so if I don’t walk it doesn’t feel right,” he says.
Kaiser says the Motion Picture and Television Fund has sponsored walking groups throughout the greater Los Angeles area: “In addition to steps walked and health benefits achieved, our group members have formed invaluable relationships — friendships, support groups in times of illness and even romance.”
Movement. Friendship. Love. Who could ask for more?
Bowman insists that the way we talk about movement matters most of all – not as obligation but as pleasure, discovery and freedom.
“These are exercises that will facilitate the experiences you still enjoy,” she says. “Simple, clear, easy to do without worrying if you’re doing them right or wrong.”