Exercising as you age: Seniors work on winter fitness routines as researchers study optimal exercise

  • Stan Plaza is a frequent visitor to the fitness room at the Northampton Senior Center.

  • Seigen Kubota, a senior studying kinesiology at UMass Amherst, left, shows Rita Edelman of Hadley the proper handgrip for a BIA test dealing with body fat percentage and body mass index at the Gazette-sponsered Active Aging In The Valley event at the school's campus center in November. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Snow, cold and shorter days make it essential to find ways to exercise indoors during the winter months. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judith LaBranche, right, a lecturer in the Kinesiology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, helps Margaret Arsenault of Amherst with a floor exercise at the Body Shop in the Totman Physical Education Building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Katja Hahn d'Errico of Amherst uses the treadmill during an early morning workout at the Body Shop in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Totman Physical Education Building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judith LaBranche, right, a lecturer in the Kinesiology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, right, says “People feel more down in the winter because you don’t have as much exposure to the sun, but we can combat that by moving.” GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • UMass researchers will be studying how different types of strength training affects men and women. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

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    Judith LaBranche, right, a lecturer in the Kinesiology Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, helps Mary McCulloch of Goshen with a "sit-to-stand" balance exercise at the Body Shop in the Totman Physical Education Building. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Judy Champagne works out in the Northampton Senior Center fitness room.

  • Judy Champagne works out in the Northampton Senior Center fitness room. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 12/25/2017 11:35:47 PM

On a blustery and cold morning recently, people inside the Northampton Senior Center were keeping warm in a group exercise class and in the fitness room.

Stan Plaza and his wife, Darlene Plaza, were among them. They say they try to come to the fitness center a few times a week to use the exercise machines in addition to participating in outdoor activities. Stan Plaza was using a machine to do arm curls while Darlene Plaza used an elliptical.

“It’s a good social outlet and provides a lot of nice exercise,” Stan Plaza said. “It makes exercise fun because you’re with a lot of great people.”

The programs offered through the Senior Center provide many great options for seniors who are looking to stay active all year long. Winter is a difficult time for people of all ages to stay in shape because cold temperatures and snow often keep people away from their outdoor exercise routines. Between the short days, the cold, and the lack of sunlight, chances are, only exceptionally motivated people are on top of their exercise habits in the winter.

“People feel more down in the winter because you don’t have as much exposure to the sun, but we can combat that by moving,” said Judith LaBranche, a lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

LaBranche explained that many people who don’t like the cold stop exercising altogether in the winter, and that people tend to eat more comfort foods. Unfortunately, both of those tendencies can lead to weight gain.

“We live in New England, we have to start thinking about how to incorporate what we’ve been given, whether it’s snow or cold,” LaBranche said.

Ways to get going

Snowshoeing and cross country skiing are fun ways to keep moving in the winter. Stan and Darlene Plaza both enjoy snowshoeing and cross country skiing when their warm-weather hiking and biking routine is disrupted.

“It’s nice to get outside of the house to enjoy nature and fresh air instead of being a couch potato,” Stan said.

For people who do not enjoy the cold and have low motivation to exercise, LaBranche said that group exercise activities can be a great way to get moving. Many local gyms, including the Northampton YMCA, include group classes. Exercising in a group can be motivating because of the added social benefit. Group classes also have a start and end time, which is encouraging for many people. For seniors, the Northampton Senior Center offers at least one exercise class every weekday, many of which are available for a low monthly cost or for free.

What works best

At UMass Amherst, research will start this winter on what kinds of exercises are best for different people as we age. Mark Miller, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass, received a $2.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study whether the neuromuscular systems of older men and older women respond differently to different training programs. Miller explained that the size and quality of our muscles change as we age, so it is particularly important for seniors to figure out an exercise routine that is right for them.

“(Older) muscles contract slower and that can become a problem,” Miller said. “When you trip, you want to be able to get that leg out in front of you.”

Miller hypothesizes that resistance training will be more beneficial to men, and power training will be more beneficial to women. Resistance training refers to lifting heavier weights slowly and power training means lifting lighter weights quickly. He emphasized that any form of exercise is good for you, but that their research will be trying to find “the exercise that is optimal to improve performance.”

Routines take root

The Northampton Senior Center has options for all abilities, including a low impact class, a walking group and the fitness center.

Pat Kapitzky participated in her weekly Stretch and Tone class on a Thursday morning with a small group of other women. Kapitzky says that she stays in shape to rebuild muscles that she lost due to injury or surgery, and to keep up with her husband.

“In Stretch and Tone our teacher obviously knows muscles,” Kapitzky said. “So we work them and then stretch them. She treats the body with respect.”

Jennifer Carbery is the transportation coordinator at the Senior Center and oversees the fitness center. She said the center has many dedicated regulars and that others people are so committed to their group classes, that they will show up to participate even if the instructor can’t make it.

“One of the side effects is friendship,” Carbery said. “You get to know people in similar situations.”

For many people, finding the time to exercise is difficult, especially when it is already dark after work. LaBranche recommends that people who work at a job where they are primarily seated all day get moving for 10 minutes of every hour. She said that walking the stairs can be a great way to get a little exercise in or even merely using a single step to do some up and down repetitions. Wall squats and bicep curls with small dumbbells are also easy exercises to do almost anywhere.

“Move the best you possibly can. That’s what you should be doing,” LaBranche said.

Meg Bantle can be reached at mbantle@valleyadvocate.com.




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