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Living Longer, Living Better

Stretch yourself, and stay injury-free

Pilates and weight lifting are great ways to stay in shape longer because they improve body conditioning, strength, and flexibility

By Jaci Conry
Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2012
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When Elaine Richard was asked by her bosses at the Weymouth Fitness Club to participate in the facility’s annual fitness competition, the 65-year-old balked. A seasoned personal trainer and Pilates instructor who competes in ballroom dancing, Richard knew she was in good shape for her age. But she was skeptical she could compete with 30- and 40-year-olds.

As it turned out, she surprised herself. After a rigorous 12-week training period, she held her own in a competition that included pullups, bench press, squats, and military sit-ups. In fact, she completed 95 sit-ups in 1 minute, more than any of her competitors.

“Who’s to say what we can do at my age?’’ said Richard, who attributes her abdominal strength to her Pilates regimen, which focuses on controlled movements to develop core strength, flexibility, and awareness. “If you set a goal, it’s amazing how disciplined you can be.’’

Pilates can be particularly beneficial to middle-aged and older adults, according to Richard, whose clients range in age from 40 to 75. “With Pilates, you are strengthening and stretching your muscles. In the process, your body becomes rebalanced,’’ said Richard. “Since your core gets stronger, you develop upper body strength, which is particularly important in women as they get older.’’

Pilates workouts vary in intensity. Once you master the basic mat class, higher-level exercises focus on more challenging movements. For advanced practitioners, the Pilates Reformer, a machine with pulleys that utilizes body weight for resistance, provides a fine-tuned exercise to develop alignment, core strength, and maximum flexibility.

Pilates is also useful in overcoming ailments: As the core of the body gets stronger, the entire torso becomes more stable, making it easier to overcome back pain; as leg muscles become rebalanced, joint pain is eased.

Now Pilates and other intense exercise regimes such as CrossFit - a strength and conditioning system performed at high intensity - are no longer just big among the young set, as a more fitness-conscious older generation has embraced them at their own pace.

“A whole new older adult has emerged, people are so much more hip to exercise,’’ said Ted Aransky, director of fitness for Hebrew Senior Life in Canton. “However, we need to keep in mind that we’re not as young as we used to be,’’ said Aransky, 42, an active Power Yoga enthusiast. “From a psychological perspective, this can sometimes be a challenge.’’

As aging weekend warriors know all too well, joints such as knees, hips, and elbows are much more sensitive from age 50 and up, and your body’s muscles less responsive. If you’re running, for example, “your body isn’t going to recover as fast as someone in their 20s or 30s does,’’ Aransky said. “You need more downtime between workouts. Rather than running every day, try three days a week.’’

Aransky suggested focusing on endurance - how long you run, rather than how hard; also consider borrowing from CrossFit and do exercises involving functional movements, such as jumping, pushing, and pulling, that are at the core of its workout.

Neil Thompson, owner of CrossFit Boston, trains older clients the same way he does younger ones. Enrollees take anywhere from two to five sessions a week, and the workouts can vary drastically in order to develop coordination, balance, and overall fitness. Some workouts are short and involve heavy weights, while longer sessions may center around a series of endurance activities and light weights.

“Intensity is relative to each individual. We scale movements and adjust workouts so that people move in ways according to their abilities,’’ said Thompson.

As an older adult, the outlook on exercise tends to change, said Aransky. “Whereas once you were working out to look good, it’s now more about doing it to feel good.’’

That’s a point Saul Shocket, 68, agrees with wholeheartedly. A seven-time World Power Lifting Champion and holder of nearly 70 world and national records, the Orleans resident has been lifting weights since he was a teenager and notched his most recent win at age 62.

“When I was young, I wanted to be big. As I got older, I wanted to be strong,’’ said Shocket. “Now, I just want to be healthy.’’

Shocket, who trains clients, said that weight lifting is hugely beneficial for older athletes. “Since lifting is such a controlled sport, there’s much less chance of injury than there is in, say, skiing or running,’’ he said. “Weights are so flexible, they can be used for many different purposes and stages of life. If you’re increasing weights gradually and correctly, once you gain strength, your joints will have support, making you much less prone to injury.’’

Not only does this strength help cultivate overall fitness, it can help in recovery from unrelated physical setbacks. “A lot of older people have problems with their knees, backs, and hips, oftentimes requiring surgery,’’ Shocket said. “If you’re able to train and work around the problem - I call that pre-hab - surgery will go better, and you’ll heal more quickly.’’

He would know. After two recent hip replacements, Shocket is back training for his next World Power Lifting competition.

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