How physicians can help senior patients get serious about fitness

Here’s the good news: Fitness for older adults is seeing a resurgence. The American College of Sports Medicine ranked it fourth out of 20 fitness trends that will be most popular in 2019. But according to the United Health Foundation’s 2019 senior health report, obesity and diabetes rates are 36% higher among young seniors today than 15 years ago. That means their need to start exercising could be more reactive than proactive. That’s where you come in.

Seniors need exercise — no secret there. They know it, and as their doctor, you know it. But that’s not enough to help them establish an exercise routine. Just because they nod their heads in agreement, doesn’t mean they have all the tools they need to make fitness a part of their daily life once they leave your office.

Rather than just encouraging physical activity, doctors have to provide a specific course of action. But don’t worry; that doesn’t mean you have to become their personal trainer as well as their physician. You just have to lay the groundwork and point them in the right direction. Here’s where to start.

Figure out what matters to your patients.

Remember, if they’ve made it this far without establishing an exercise routine, they likely won’t feel obligated to do so all of a sudden. You’ve got to figure out what matters to your patients and be specific about how exercise can help them be more present for that. Then, you can reframe how they view fitness.

“Some people don’t fully understand that the goal of exercise is to enhance activities of daily living, improve movement, and reduce injury risk,” says Stephanie Sporko, exercise physiologist and clinical coordinator at Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center, an EXOS-operated medical fitness center. “Some people have this skewed perception of personal training that we just push them past their breaking point.” Remind patients that low-intensity exercise can make a difference; it’s not all high-intensity interval training and boot-camp-style classes.

Some people don't fully understand that the goal of exercise is to enhance activities of daily living.

Valarie Harvey is one senior who had never belonged to a gym and had never lived an active lifestyle. Having gone through two hip replacements, two back surgeries, and breast cancer, she wasn’t convinced that she was up to the task of exercising or that the gym had a place for her. But a more recent six-month hospitalization revealed that she had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and would require oxygen tanks during the day and at night.

That triggered something in her, and it was enough to open her mind to the idea of joining a fitness center. “It wasn’t my time yet,” she said. She wanted to prevail. The possibility that she could reduce her reliance on oxygen tanks and continue to get around efficiently despite her condition was motivating. She decided it was time for a lifestyle change, and with a referral from her doctor, she joined the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center.

Know that the right facility makes all the difference.

Once you get your senior patients thinking, “Yes, I can exercise safely, and no, it’s not too late,” you don’t want to shatter their motivation by sending them to a big box gym that doesn’t understand their needs and vulnerabilities. For example, like Harvey, they may fear injury or feel out of place. They might be wrestling with self-doubt or cynicism that starting an exercise routine later in life can even make a difference.

“Senior patients may be afraid to start because they fear injury,” says Sporko. But if seniors feel cared for in a fitness setting rather than thrown into the wild, they’ll be more likely to keep going back. Debbie Roytas is the executive director of the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center and explained they have four complimentary appointments with members to get to know them. “Then we specially design programs and services to fit their needs,” she says. Because Harvey wasn’t comfortable or confident in a gym environment, that was huge for easing her into a routine.

A year later, she’s still at it. She doesn’t need oxygen tanks, and she feels more comfortable getting around her home without a walker. “My doctors are amazed by the progress,” she says. But it’s not a sudden love of exercise that keeps her coming back. She describes it as a love-hate relationship, saying it’s still very new to her, but she loves it because she sees the benefits. If the staff wasn’t going the extra mile to make her feel comfortable and confident, she may not be as willing to come back day after day.

It’s important to refer patients to a fitness facility you trust will give them personal attention. If this type of facility isn’t available in your area, it might be time to consider filling that hole in that market. A medical fitness center will create new revenue streams for your health system, and allow you to bring your patients’ care full circle.

Build trust and stay involved.

Follow-up is important. “Knowing their physician is aware of their exercise program will make senior patients feel like they’re safe, and that it will benefit their health,” says Sporko. They want to ensure their coach understands their health status and their doctor will know what the coach is doing so they can course correct if needed. When this level of communication happens, not only is the patient getting more personal attention, but knowing their doctor is involved in the process tends to encourage them to stick to the plan and bolsters more trust.

They want to ensure that the coach has an understanding of their health status and their doctor will know what the coach is doing and can course correct.

It’s a big part of why Harvey hasn’t cut off her membership. At her checkups, her doctors always ask about her exercise routine, and they’ll suggest additional exercises she can incorporate. Meanwhile, the fitness staff stays updated on her health. When her blood pressure was high, her clinical coordinator at the Wilfred R. Cameron Wellness Center offered to call her doctor and set up an appointment.

At a commercial gym, the staff may greet members at the door and ask how their day is, but they won’t receive much accountability or communication once they leave. Medical fitness centers operate a bit differently, creating a close relationship with the physician and providing several consultations with members to determine what they need.

Degrees, certifications, and current licenses are one thing. But equally important for engaging the senior population are coaches and coordinators who can communicate with you and adjust workout plans based on a patient’s progress. Your senior patient’s fitness journey starts with you, their doctor, but it becomes a routine when you have partners that you trust will put in the work to create a positive experience that makes a patient wonder why they didn’t start exercising sooner.

Need help getting the conversation about exercise started? Here are a few pointers.

About the Author

Catherine Conelly

Catherine Conelly is a California-based health, fitness, and lifestyle writer.

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