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Senior Fitness: Shaping Up Safely

After indulging in heaping helpings of holiday treats and lounging on the couch watching “A Christmas Story” marathon, it’s no surprise the top of most New Year’s Resolution lists begin with “Start Exercising!”

It’s a worthy goal. Keeping fit is important to achieve well-being and is particularly so as we age.

“It keeps your heart in good condition, reduces the risk of some cancers and type 2 diabetes, slows down muscle loss, helps maintain a healthy weight, improves balance, and is a mood elevator,” says Del Herrera, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. “Exercise, especially dance, can also allay neurodegenerative brain issues like Alzheimer’s.”

Creaky knees and twingy shoulders might make people in their golden years reluctant to even start. However, with a doctor’s approval, it’s important to try.  

Herrera, also a senior fitness specialist, says any type of exercise is beneficial and there are many options, including Zumba, Pilates and Tai Chi. Group classes geared to older people are offered locally through the Goebel Adult Community Center, Conejo Valley Adult School, the YMCA, recreation centers and gyms. Senior dance fitness classes, for instance, might offer low-impact choreography or provide chairs for standing support.

“Just get moving!” says Herrera. “Inertia works both ways. Once you have a habit of moving, you’ll want to keep moving. If you’re sedentary, it’s easy to stay that way. Start slowly and choose something you enjoy and is convenient. Otherwise, you won’t keep it up.”

Herrera says she trains some very fit seniors who have regularly worked out for years and don’t need to radically adapt their routine because of their age. But, in general, she says, older adults should approach exercise differently than when they were younger.

“As people age, they lose muscle mass. That reduces strength and affects balance,” says Herrera. “Additionally, flexibility decreases, it’s easier to gain weight and more difficult to lose it. There’s bone loss, as well.”

To address these issues, Herrera says it’s best for seniors to adopt a balanced program that incorporates these four types of low-impact exercises:

1.      Strength training (aka resistance training) doesn’t mean you have to become a body builder and lift heavy dumbbells. It’s just as beneficial to use light weights, resistance tubes or bands. Strength training also includes body-weight work, such as squats (even shallow knee bends are helpful) and pushups. 

2.      Cardio exercise is anything to get the heart rate up. Walking, dancing, biking or swimming are good examples, she says.

3.      Flexibility training can include stretching and yoga movements. 

4.      Balance training can be as simple as standing on one leg. Herrera also uses Balance Discs and BOSU®  balls with her clients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the leading cause of injury among adults over 65, so maintaining balance is of particular importance.

Senior Recommendations

The CDC recommends all adults shoot for at least 150 minutes to 300 minutes per week of moderate, heart-pumping exercise. Spreading physical activity across at least three days a week may reduce risk of injury and prevent excessive fatigue, the CDC says.

“Because finding the time to get in one 30-minute block might be difficult, break it up into 10-minute sessions of cardio exercise,” recommends Herrera. “There’s evidence that three 10-minute sessions are as effective as doing one 30-minute session. Aim for at least 30 minutes five days a week.”

The CDC also advises adults do muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity involving all major muscle groups, two days or more a week. (Most fitness experts agree it’s best to avoid strength training two days in a row so the muscles can recover.)   

The CDC guidelines further states that seniors should only be as physically active as their level of fitness, abilities and health allow.

“Pushing your body to the point of pain is counterproductive,” says Herrera. “You may feel discomfort as your exercise program progresses, but if an exercise causes pain, stop immediately or you can injure yourself.”

She recommends getting a physical exam before starting any program. This will provide a baseline of your fitness level and will uncover any limitations or restrictions you may have.

Herrera does a full assessment of her clients before developing their individualized program. They fill out a questionnaire asking for information about health issues, including a list of medications they are taking. 

“Medications can affect how a body responds to exercise,” she says, adding, “It’s important to talk frankly to your trainer about any health concerns you may have.”

Finding a Trainer

Herrera says it’s best to choose someone with experience and special training working with seniors. 

“They need to understand the changes that happen with age and how to improve fitness levels in a safe way,” she explains. 

In addition, your trainer or class instructor should never make you feel uncomfortable or bad about yourself. 

“Your trainer should accommodate YOU. If it’s not a good fit, don’t hesitate to find someone else. Your health is what’s important.” 

Herrera thinks group classes, such as dance, are a fun way to stay in shape.

”The music boosts your mood, and you’re dancing with friends. The social interaction is a bonus to all the mental and physical benefits you get when dancing. You feel great when you leave.”  

Look for instructors who offer alternative steps so you can easily modify the choreography to match your fitness level, she says. For example, if you can’t do a cha-cha step because it hurts your knees, the instructor might suggest you march in place. When taking a dance class, wear appropriate clothing, such as sturdy shoes not sandals, and drink water to stay hydrated.

Expert Advice

You don’t have to join a gym or participate in a class to become fit.

“If you want to work out at home or on your own, it’s still a good idea to first consult with a trainer so you know how to use proper form and to exercise safely,” says Herrera.

Beginning a fitness program after a hiatus or starting from scratch can be daunting.

“Progress takes time, so be patient—you’ll get there!” she says.

Herrera, who lives in Thousand Oaks with her husband and son, teaches throughout the Conejo Valley classes of varying formats, from high-impact aerobics to chair fitness. Her students are of all ages, from teens on up. She also trains clients privately in their homes. 

Herrera’s 30-year-plus background in various forms of dance and her training in martial arts nurtured her love of movement and paved the way to a career in fitness. After participating in a class, she got her license to teach Zumba in 2009 and has been teaching that format ever since.

In 2013, Herrera became certified as a Personal Trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine, one of the most respected training programs. Herrera continued taking courses in her field and has earned a total of nine certifications and licenses in various fitness specialties. 

“I love exercise and movement and want to share my love with others,” she says. “It’s my mission to get the word out, you can exercise and become healthier regardless of what your fitness level is now.” 

To find out more about developing a tailored exercise plan, contact Del Herrera at 805.409.7153 or visit