Fitness, boomer-style

During a routine check-up with her doctor, Cleo Chmielinski received advice that may sound familiar: find a way to incorporate more exercise into your life.

After years of finding excuses not to exercise, Cleo finally took this advice to heart and started searching for a health club. But she was turned off by the entire scene. “I didn’t feel very comfortable with all the 20-somethings in spandex,” says Cleo, who is a 40-something baby boomer. “Even worse, I found the trainers generally weren’t interested in my needs. They seemed more interested in the younger members.”

And from that experience, the idea for Avalon Woods – a health club geared toward mature adults – was born. “I thought to myself: there must be people like me, searching for a health club more suited for mature needs and tastes,” Cleo says of her decision to open the club.

While health clubs oriented toward older adults is a growing trend in the United States, Avalon Woods may be the only one of its kind in Canada, Cleo says. But this could soon change. According to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, older adults are hitting gyms and health clubs in record numbers. The group says health club membership for people over 55 grew by 343 per cent from 1987 to 2003, while the number of members in the 35-54 age group increased by 180 per cent.

Located in Etobicoke, Ontario, Avalon Woods focuses not only on fitness, but what is called the six dimensions of wellness: physical, occupational, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual. While the average age for members is 57, most are in their 40s. The oldest member is currently 86.

Personalized fitness program
Members of Avalon Woods not only have use of unique “boomer-friendly” equipment – such as recumbent bicycles designed for people with mobility restriction – but they have their own personal support team. Specially trained to deal with health issues for the 50plus such as osteoporosis, diabetes and heart conditions, the health club staff gives each member an extensive lifestyle assessment. Using this information, a trainer then creates a fitness program specifically tailored to a member’s needs (working with a person’s physician if necessary) and then orients them to specialized equipment.

“As a baby boomer, I have become acutely aware of the benefits of exercise combined with healthy eating,” says Hilda Mackow, a business executive and member of Avalon Woods. “However, finding a health club that is serious about the health and well-being of mature adults was not an easy task, until I found the Avalon Woods. The professional trainers are truly committed to designing personalized programs that work.”

Hilda says that like many women, she has joined a number of health clubs over the years – but this is the first time she feels she is truly benefiting. “What continues to impress me is their daily attention in ensuring you are doing your exercises correctly and the wonderful ambience they create,” she says.

Exercise improves quality of life
Inactivity has been linked with increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, certain cancers and premature death from any cause.

And it’s not just cardiovascular fitness that provides healthy benefits. Recent studies have shown that strength training is effective in preventing osteoporosis. In fact, weight training and other types of strength training can improve quality of life and the ability to complete daily tasks for adults even in their 80s and 90s, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Yet people tend to focus exclusively on cardio fitness,” Cleo says. “Strength training is often overlooked.”

If you have images of hoisting scary bar bells or maneuvering clunky machines, think again. At Avalon Woods, the strength training equipment is designed specifically for older adults. No need to remove pins or mess with adjusting heavy weights: the completely automated system does it for you. You simply push a button indicating how much weight you want to lift. The computer also tracks your repetitions.

“Our members find it quite fun,” Cleo says.

Turning back the genetic clock
And if strength training is made to be fun, all the better. Adding to the mounting evidence of the health benefits of resistance training, new research from McMaster University says that lifting weights may actually reverse the aging process in muscle cells.

The study, published in PLoS ONE, an international online journal of the Public Library of Science, involved analyzing tissue samples from people aged 70 and older before and after they underwent six months of twice-weekly resistance training. These samples were then compared to those taken from healthy men and women in their 20s. Researchers found that exercise resulted in an actual reversal of a person’s “genetic fingerprint”. In fact, the older participants were found to have cellular levels similar to those seen in younger adults.

The researchers also examined muscle strength. Before the resistance training began, the participants in their 70s were 59 per cent weaker than the younger study participants – but after only six months of training, they were only 38 per cent weaker.

“People don’t always realize how important it is to include strength training in their exercise program,” Cleo says. “Keeping up your strength is vital for staying mobile – you need it for just about everything in daily living from carrying the groceries or lifting that heavy bowl – or even for simply getting out of your chair.”

Are you a “Health Club” person?
Studies have shown that many people join health clubs only to never show up at all or to quit after only a few months. “Gym boredom” can set in, or people may simply find it more efficient to exercise at home.

It matters less where you exercise, than that you do, Cleo says. “Studies have shown that even as little as 15 minutes of walking produces health benefits. While more exercise brings greater benefits, every little bit counts. Anything you do, no matter how small, is good for you.”

So what makes for a “Health Club” person? “Health clubs can be motivating, especially for people who have tried home exercise and not succeeded in maintaining it,” says Cleo. “A health club also generally offers a wider range of exercise and more sophisticated equipment, as well as fitness classes such as Pilates or yoga.”

And then there’s the social support. “We make it a policy to know every member’s name – and we’ve even been asked to give ‘friendly reminder’ phone calls to members who haven’t shown up for awhile,” she adds, with a laugh.

Members also have an opportunity to mix socially through cooking classes, weekly wine-tastings or a shared post-workout juice in the café. The club also offers lectures by a Naturopath, as well as the services of a Registered Nurse and Dietician.

Just do it
So whether you’re into health clubs or home-based work-outs, what’s important is to find an activity you like – and then devise a fitness program around it. “Exercise doesn’t have to hurt – in fact, it can be fun!” says Cleo. “Just find a way to get started – take baby steps – and before you know it, you’ll be addicted. Exercise will become like brushing your teeth: you’ll feel badly if you don’t do it!”

Check out Avalon Woods at

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