Members of the Lenox Hill Senior Center had an opportunity in mid-December 2000 to hear a panel of physicians speak on the benefits of exercise for older people. Dr Dora Stadtler, a medical resident on geriatrics rotation, was the primary speaker, and Drs Mark Lachs and Bharathi Raman of the Weill Cornell Center for Aging Research and Clinical Care and the Division of Geriatrics and Gerontology were present to answer questions. The forum was presented as part of the Aging Center's efforts to involve medical residents in the community at large. Residents who are on geriatrics rotation are called upon to provide health education to the older community. The event at the Lenox Hill Senior Center was part of this program.
Dr Stadtler's presentation focused upon four major points regarding exercise and older people. Her first point was that it is important to set goals. Many who begin exercise programs (not simply older adults) suffer from a lack of defined purpose when they begin; this leads to frustration at a perceived lack of "progress." In fact, said Dr Stadtler, if one sets goals at the outset, this frustration - and therefore the risk of abandoning exercise altogether - can be avoided.
The second point concerned the benefits of exercise. As Dr Stadtler pointed out, exercise allows for improved overall health, better sleep, and even better mood. This point was reinforced by comments from Dr Lachs, who emphasized the mental health benefits of exercise, especially upon the mind. "Use it or lose it" was the mantra he endorsed, and the audience seemed to agree.
Dr Stadtler's third point involved the various types of exercise. Whereas the stereotype of exercise involves simple muscular strength, the audience was urged to recognize that this was only one aspect of exercise. Even those with modest muscular strength can still benefit from exercise that emphasizes flexibility and endurance. Flexibility, which is of particular concern to older adults, can be developed through simple stretches, tai chi, or similar workouts. Endurance might be developed through something as simple as incrementally increasing the distance walked by a short amount each week.. Older people and their doctors know best their own individual needs; so, as Dr Stadtler emphasized, it is important to decide with your doctor which exercise will serve one best.
The final point concerned how to begin an exercise program. As one of the audience members asked, "How do you start exercising when you're 75 years old?" "Start low, go slow" was the reply, and Dr Stadtler was careful to expand upon this point. By starting slowly and building up, older people can gain a realistic assessment of their own capabilities, while avoiding stress injuries and the frustration that comes from a too-ambitious exercise plan. The important thing is to get started.
Following the Dr Stadtler's presentation, a lively question-and-answer session followed. Questions included: How many times per week should you exercise? (Preferably three, but as much or as little as you can manage in the beginning.) Is there a difference between walking and a stationary bike? (Only if you get bored on the bike - and walking can be good for socialization.) Can the primary physician make specific exercise recommendations? (Yes!) Audience members gave pointers on local places to exercise. Executive Director Nancy Wackstein reminded attendees that classes are offered on-site at the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House itself.
The meeting adjourned in a flurry of conversation and one-on-one talks with Drs Stadtler, Lachs and Raman. The event was a great example of how the Center is linking trainees at every level with community needs.