There is a saying that’s been floating around my gym recently, “Strong is the new skinny.” It means that while in the past exercise was primarily used to create a thinner and supposedly more beautiful figure, people are now starting to use exercise as a way to create strength, and beauty is now found in the functionality of that strength. This how older people, especially low-income older people, should be encouraged to think about exercise.
We know that older adults are not getting enough exercise. According to the CDC, only 9% to 26% of adults aged 60 to 69 and 6% to 10% of adults aged 70 or older meet current U.S. recommendations for physical activity.
This problem is more pronounced among the poorer population. Only 17.6% of people from households earning less than $15,000 report achieving the recommended levels of physical activity and 39.5% report no leisure time activity whatsoever, according to Active Living by Design, a group that works to increase physical activity within the population. Additionally, more than a quarter of people from households earning less than $15,000 are considered obese.
Exercise plays an important role in staving off chronic diseases, like arthritis and diabetes, and preventing falls—two problems that contribute significantly of overall healthcare costs in the U.S. But physical activity and strength are also vital in allowing older adults to connect to their communities and avoid isolation.
I am reminded of my Grandmother. One winter when she was in her eighties, my Grandma stopped her daily walking routine because of icy sidewalks. When spring came, she noticed that her garage needed to be painted. Being independent and used to the physical activity of her younger life managing a farm, Grandma drove to the hardware store, bought paint, and painted half a wall of the garage herself. The next day an ambulance took her to the hospital. She was dehydrated and too stiff to move. This episode began a period of decline in which my Grandma became more fragile, less willing to leave her home and more isolated from society. Eventually, she moved to a nursing home, where she has lived most of the last decade—an existence that is not very fulfilling and definitely costly to society.
It is not necessary for older adults to exercise as much as Earnestine Sheppard in video above. But it makes sense to give older people more examples like Mrs. Sheppard, so they know what’s possible. It helps to have people to look up to and try to emulate. Providing older people with opportunities to engage in physical activities in their own homes or, better yet, in groups, would also help them to adopt healthier lifestyles, avoid the isolation that comes with losing strength and stamina, and live independently longer.