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10 Practical Tips for Training Adults and Older Adults

by Javier Bergas, BS


10 Practical Tips for Training Adults and Older Adults

Javier Bergas, BS

Information and research are very important for our work and, luckily, it is now more easily accessible. However, with this article I have chosen to share a series of key points that go beyond bibliographic references (without underestimating their value) to focus on the day-to-day aspects of working with our older clients.  We are honing into the fitness area, both land and aquatic activities, away from research groups or laboratories.

Relevant data in recent years shows the growth of physical activity in older adults.  In fact, in many gyms and swimming pools, a large percentage of participants encompass the second (50-65), third (65-80) and fourth (80+) ages of adulthood.

The reason for this differentiation in three ages leads us to our first consideration,  "there are great interpersonal differences". Let's give the example of a newly pensioned person of 65 years old with a senior of 80, or a 50-year-old who has osteoarthritis with a person aged 70 but without symptoms.  We should start to differentiate by objectives, skills, or specific needs. It is most likely arthritis will be present, especially in the third and fourth age; but even some people belonging to the second age have previous considerations.

Second, the more years that go by the more you will find, “differences according to clinical, sports, or work history”. Take, for example, two  70-year-old individuals.  One is structurally challenged (osteoarthritis, previous injuries, etc.) and the other with cardiac considerations.  Would they have the same needs? If we added another 70-year-old without any medical considerations, the programming equation changes even more.

We must also “consider the practical limiters” that become very important. What do we mean by “practical limiters”? Recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Colleges of Sports Medicine (ACSM) promote a minimum of 5 days a week of physical activity (specially in sedentary people and seniors).  In a high percentage of the population, due to limitations from work, family, or by other aspects of life, this is not always easy to accomplish. Hence, the desirability of orienting the stimuli of training to qualitative aspects with respect to quantitative ones.

That doesn’t imply that we should not educate clients in those healthy habits.  But, on the other hand, we need to look at whether they already have that information or not. For example, most everyone knows sugary drinks aren't good for us.  So, why do we keep drinking them? The same goes for physical activity.  Do we really think they don't know these basic concepts?

The answer brings us to the third key, "the psychological aspects". We need to understand that anxiety and depression can be age-related, which creates a need for empathy that is sometimes not exactly easy to achieve. We must also understand certain fears or discomfort, such as not accepting their body when seen in a swimsuit. We should not forget that we are talking about people who may have grown up in a completely different context from ours. Possibly, in some cases, their first experience with physical activity is with us.

This transitions to the fourth key point, "myths and white coat effect". Some may be unaware of the specific need to perform scheduled physical activity. They know the recommendations and what is said about the benefits, but, unfortunately, it often happens that they will listen better to the primary care doctor, nurse, or trusted medical team member than a physical activity specialist. Is it something that is changing? Yes, of course. And there are many medical professionals who give us a hand.  In fact, a large percentage of users come to our programs thanks to medical professionals.  But we still have a long way to go.

Going back to empathy and psychological aspects, we reach the fifth key, "spaces and different and specific atmosphere". Many times, we fall into the mistake of using the same musical compilation for multiple groups.  Or even use that same playlist for different class typologies, as in a continuous training freestyle class and in a circuit class with the help of a stopwatch. On many occasions, we may even use the same rhythm or bpm.  This is especially true when the instructor teaches multiple class formats per week.  However, we must consider any aspect of the environment that we can change or adapt to meet clients’ specific needs, including their musical tastes.

That same “adaptation concept” should be applied to our sixth key point, "use appropriate equipment". Let's take the example of elastic bands, a very interesting material when working with seniors (with a lot of demonstration and scientific evidence).  A question to be answered, is it good for everyone? Does everyone have the same ability to grip, control, and stabilize the equipment, or to perform the same range of motion? Should everyone work with the same resistance level? We should look for adaptations of exercises or even equipment choices for each person. Let us remember the second key point, the qualitative aspect is better than the quantitative one.

Following this same qualitative consideration, we arrive at the seventh observation, "biomechanical adaptation".  This we can basically summarize in two aspects: lack of balance and/or stabilization of movement and the limitation in the safe range of movement due to any type of degenerative condition, common in cases of osteoarthritis.

Along the same line and remembering what we have commented on the musical rhythm, we must refer to "execution times".   Although it may sound controversial, in many cases instructors are more concerned that students move to the rhythm of the music than with the quality of the movement. I agree that more and more instructors are looking for this qualitative aspect.  However, many times we let ourselves be carried away by the music. Although a large part of the group can follow the music tempo, we must also remember the heterogeneity of the group, as mentioned at the beginning. 

Therefore, we must not forget our ninth key point, "the slow progression of stimuli" or, to put it another way, "patience".  This involves patience in many aspects, including the progression of the load, stimulus, difficulty of the movement, type of transition, etc. The timing needs will be different or even the methods will have to be adjusted. Some users may respond better to certain communication methods and learn more quickly, while others need different strategies.  Simply be patient and support them in the process. The learning capacity is the same, what is somewhat different is the timing of that process.

This brings us to the last tip, "simple cognitive stimuli". For this we will start from the premise that any well-executed and well-prescribed exercise is functional or should be.  If it is not, why do it? It is functional because it improves the user's quality of movement, their level of fitness and/or their motor skills.  But we must remember that certain levels of motor difficulty are going to subtract more than add, so follow the principles of progression, qualitative training, and simple cognitive stimulus.  We should offer exercises and activities that serve to train cognitive skills at the same time as the motor skills of our users. For example, games involving skills, decision making, multidirectional displacements, simple (or not) combinations of movements, etc.

If we keep these 10 points in mind, the success of our program (and consequently, the improvement of our users' abilities) will be within easy reach!



Javier Bergas, BS, is a primary school teacher, International AEA Training Specialist, AEA AFAP/AFEP Program Leader Trainer, and the product manager of Ego Wellness Resort in Lucca, Italy and MirandaGym in Majorca, Spain. He is an aquatic fitness and swimming instructor for various populations.  To learn more, contact Javier by email (javier.bergas@gmail.com), visit his website (https://javierbergas.com) or connect via social media (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter - javier.bergas).

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