Mary Furlong Coomer, an 82-year-old West Louisville resident, takes tai chi class at UofL’s Trager institute. UofL photo.
Mary Furlong Coomer, an 82-year-old West Louisville resident, takes tai chi class at UofL’s Trager institute. UofL photo.

We all know that getting enough physical activity is good for our health, but for older adults, especially those who have chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, getting active can be difficult.

According to experts at the UofL Trager Institute/Republic Bank Foundation Optimal Aging Clinic, the benefits of movement for older adults are worth the effort. Activity can help them maintain physical and cognitive abilities, allowing them to continue to do the things they enjoy.

“Our bodies are very adjustable, and exercise is so beneficial. Older adults have a high risk of dying because they fall. They fall because they have lost muscle strength and they lose their balance,” said Anna Faul, executive director of the institute. “In order to improve muscle strength and improve balance, you need to do cardiovascular exercise and you need to do strength training.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends that older adults get 150 minutes of activity each week, along with two sessions of strength training. For people who have not been active in recent years or who may have conditions that make movement more challenging, that target can seem overwhelming.

The Trager Institute offers several opportunities to help older adults in the community get moving, including some recommended in a recent report published by HHS that focuses on strategies to help them get the recommended amount of exercise each week.

Among these are yoga and tai chi, which can help increase strength and balance. The institute offers hour-long yoga and tai chi classes two days a week. Classes are just $5 per session (or free for those who cannot afford the fee). The classes not only increase strength and balance, but provide social engagement, another important factor in healthy aging.

Mary Furlong Coomer, an 82-year-old West Louisville resident, has been participating in exercise classes and more at Trager Institute since late 2022. Although she was active for many years prior, she has found the art and fitness activities at Trager suit her needs well now as she returns to activity from pandemic lockdown and multiple joint surgeries.

“I have played tai chi and done yoga for decades, but I wanted to be sure not to overdo. The beginning tai chi and gentle yoga have helped me stay motivated,” she said.

Another strategy used at the Trager Institute is motivational interviewing, helping patients connect the desire to be active with things that matter to them, such as the ability to spend time with grandchildren.

As a former fitness instructor and through her own experience, Coomer said it helps to focus on the benefits.

“I found it boils down to one thing: Do what you will do and don’t kid yourself you have to like it. It’s discipline,” Coomer said. “You have to rewind back to that tiny pinhole of willingness and do the very least you can manage and still look yourself in the mirror. Experience has taught me that by trusting the process and pushing my sorry self out the door, I will be happy afterwards.”

Faul agrees that it’s OK to start slow in making changes to your activity level, but the important thing is to start.

“Small steps lead to bigger steps. Why don’t you just for today go and get the mail in the mailbox. And then why don’t you maybe walk two times around the mailbox before you pick up the mail? Little things that help people build some confidence that they can actually do something like this are really important,” Faul said.

Mary Furlong Coomer, right, and LeRoy Chittenden, center, take yoga class at UofL’s Trager institute. UofL photo.
Mary Furlong Coomer, right, and LeRoy Chittenden, center, take yoga class at UofL’s Trager institute. UofL photo.

Exercising with others is helpful for many people. Previously, LeRoy Chittenden taught yoga daily, but to regain his capacity after pandemic lockdown, he has been taking tai chi and yoga at Trager for the last several months and teaches chair yoga on Fridays. He said having others in class with him helps him stay on track.

“The only exercise I do by myself is walk. I need other people to make things easy,” he said. “To paraphrase Kermit — It’s not easy being old. Everything is twice as hard.”

It’s never too late to start moving more, Faul said, and small efforts can yield great benefits.

“You can start at 90 years old. Take the stairs – even if it’s slow, park further from your destination to increase steps,” Faul said. “It will be very helpful for your personal health and your mental health. You will not believe how valuable exercise is for mental health.”

An even more robust activity program is expected to be available at Trager Institute later this fall. Justin Dials, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor in the UofL Department of Health and Sports Sciences, is building an exercise-based program similar to cardiac rehabilitation, which he plans to launch later this year. The program will be a structured exercise plan designed as preventive medicine for older adults who are at risk for various age-related disorders, including but not limited to traditional risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases. Dials also plans to document changes in participants’ health over time.

“We want to see the effect of exercise training on limiting the natural effects of aging that we as humans experience. As we age, the chances for both physical and psychological disorders increase and can be improved with evidence-based practice, which will be the cornerstone of this new and unique program.”