Caroline Parkinson runs a day home in St. Albert. On any given weekday, children aged a few months to a few years old tear around her home for up to eight hours. She delivers flyers in her Lacombe Park neighbourhood twice a week. She plays indoor soccer and wants to start playing outdoors again soon. She also wants take up curling.
And Parkinson is 65 years old.
She is the oldest member of her soccer team. She doesn’t have arthritis, osteoporosis or any other physical ailments common of women her age. She did break her wrist in a fall while out for a walk this winter, but is recovering nicely. And she credits exercise for her healthy physical state.
“I find my muscles are much better,” she said. “My breathing and stuff, my stamina is better that way. Sort of like the person that jogs.”
She also enjoys gardening. The reason she took up her flyer route was because she loves walking. She has seen what inactivity can do to older women and refuses to follow the same path.
“My mom’s in a wheelchair because she had problems with her knees and just stopped,” Parkinson said. “Being physically active is a necessity. It’s so easy to sit on the couch. You have to have somebody drive you or you drive yourself to do it. Necessity drives me.”
Lori Jack couldn’t agree more. The primary care nurse in geriatrics at the St. Albert and Sturgeon Primary Care Network works with senior citizens daily and has seen how important physical activity can be, not just for seniors but especially for mature women.
“[Exercise] is extremely important,” she said. “It helps men and women to increase range of movement, to increase lean muscle, strengthen bones and tendons. It improves your ability to perform everyday activities, prevent injuries, accidents and speeds up rehabilitation.”
Senior women in particular face unique physical challenges as they age, Jack explained. Postmenopausal women in particular face the risk of osteoporosis, which can lead to stress fractures and falls. A tumble that might only shake up a younger individual can cause serious harm if bones become brittle.
“Exercise helps to build and maintain bone density. By increasing bone density and doing regular resistant exercises, it helps to stimulate bone formation and retain calcium in the bones, especially those that bear weight load.”
At issue is more than just physical health — it’s one of lifestyle. Exercise builds endurance, which means seniors can enjoy more of their favourite activities, such as gardening or playing with grandchildren. But when it comes to women specifically, Jack has found age and physical activity can influence future health.
“One of the concerns that senior women have is that they tend to live longer than men, and they also tend to live with more disabilities. And then staying physically active and exercising regularly can prevent or delay disease or disabilities.”
In the autumn years of life, exercise can become increasingly difficult but the activity itself doesn’t have to be. There is no need to pound out miles on the treadmill or throw heavy barbells around. Simple movement, stretching and resistance exercises can reap plenty of benefits for older women. And the St. Albert Senior Citizens’ Club has designed several exercise classes to target that need.
“I think it’s important to realize there are different levels of fitness that need to be offered in order for everyone to participate and seeing older seniors want to be doing something because if they remain active, it helps them physically and mentally,” said Leslie MacEachern, director of the club.
Among the classes the club offers, yoga, tai chi and functional fitness are among the most popular with women (although one salsa class experiences record attendance when a certain male instructor leads). Soft pilates and walking workouts are also well attended. The instructors make the point of tailoring the class to the abilities of the participants.
“I pay attention to the speed that I teach the class, how quickly I go through the flows from posture to posture,” said Jeanne Irwin, yoga instructor for the club. “I adjust to the energy of the day.”
Because her classes are predominately made up of women, Irwin has seen first-hand the benefits of yoga for them. In particular she states women who do yoga find menopause easier to deal with.
“What seems to happen is you are more aware of your body and body function. Yoga is very helpful in giving you tools to deal with fatigue, insomnia and depression, three of the big symptoms of menopause.”
A recent study also found that breast cancer survivors who followed traditional post-treatment care and took part in yoga for four weeks reported improvements in daytime fatigue, insomnia and overall quality of life compared to women who simply followed post-treatment care.
It’s the body awareness that’s a part of yoga that is especially beneficial, according to Irwin. “With that awareness, we can avoid overtaxing. Yoga teaches them to pay attention to what’s going on and maybe back off a bit before they have an injury.”
Tai chi is also beneficial for older women, according to Brad Schultz, who has been teaching it for 10 years. Most of his clientele are female. “I think women in general are more open to more subtle aspects of themselves and tai chi is a physical art form working with the mind and body as a co-ordinated movement.”
Schultz is quick to rattle off the benefits of tai chi for older women — accessibility because there are “no extreme body positions,” improving bone density through gentle resistance, relief of menopause by “balancing out the hormonal systems” and guarding against osteoporosis by keeping “the joints open and mobile.”
“One of the most important things is hearing from students how it improves quality of life — being able to move around with less pain, garden for longer or deal with less soreness after,” Schultz said.
And Jack explains that’s what it boils down to — not so much preventing individual physical challenges that mature women face with age, but enhancing quality of life as much as possible.
“I just think that the benefits to exercise far outweigh any disadvantages and that the key to longevity is being able to be as mobile as possible and as independent as possible. And I think that seniors are key role models for our youth and by assisting seniors to be as active and healthy as possible, this really helps to impress healthy lifestyles with children, youth and adults.”