When Tom Cooney started practicing physical therapy 33 years ago, he rarely had patients older than 80. Now, developing a weight-lifting program for a 95-year-old woman, or a fitness plan for a 66-year-old man trying to keep his competitive edge on the racquetball court, have become almost commonplace.
As the population ages and people live longer, more and more seniors are staying active and getting in shape with exercise programs once reserved for 20- and 30-somethings.
"When I first graduated in 1979, an 80-year-old didn't come up to you and ask how to strengthen their Achilles tendon for their doubles tennis game," said Cooney, co-owner of Physical Therapy Associates of Schenectady, P.C., which owns Berkshire Physical Therapy & Wellness in Pittsfield.
"They are staying way more active into their senior years, and working on strategies to stay more fit," Cooney said. "I work with the senior population on staying fit and ‘in the game' for general condition and strengthening. Sixty-plus is the new 50."
Stasia Gervey, 96, of Dalton, personifies the senior exercise trend. She walks to the Dalton CRA three times a week to go swimming and do resistance training.
She said the fitness regimen has kept her active and fit. "it's keeping me in shape," said Gervey. "I garden, I have no problem doing things. I guess I'm just one of the lucky ones."
But as hard as it can be to muster motivation to exercise at any age, Gervey doesn't cut herself any slack.
"If I don't feel like it that day, I make myself go," she said. "It's easier to sit around in a comfy chair instead of going there and pounding machines. I could sit around, but I'm not that type."
Lauren Pellegrino, fitness and wellness manager at Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington, said the number of clients who are senior citizens has swelled over the last five years.
"They're such a huge fitness population now, it's great to see," Pellegrino said.
Cooney attributes the popularity of senior fitness largely to the aging baby boomer population, the first of whom reached typical retirement age in 2011, along with increasing life ex pectancy in the United States.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Pre vention, the average life ex pectency in 2010 was 78.5 years -- up from 68.2 years in 1950, and just 47.3 years in 1900. As a result, the over-65 population has increased dramatically.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that, in 2010, there were 40.3 million people in the U.S. age 65 and older, accounting for 13 percent of the total population; 85- to 94-year-olds are the fastest-growing age group among seniors.
"This group wants to be healthier," Cooney said. "They want to keep moving. Because basically, movement is life."
Cooney also believes the trend is in part the result of medical and societal emphasis on physical activity over the last 20 to 30 years. "I have seen the general population that I treat become a lot more active," he said. "All exercise is good, it doesn't matter how you do it."
Tammy St. John, a certified pilates fitness instructor and owner of Pilatique Studio & Boutique in Pittsfield, said many of her elderly clients come to her for injury prevention. Pilates emphasizes core training, which improves strength and balance, and helps prevent falling down.
"Many of the clients are basically looking for preventative maintenance," St. John said. "They want to stay functional; want to be able to stay independent."
Lisa Baumgart, who owns Greylock Physical Therapy in Lanesborough, said she has noticed similar age trends among her clientele over the last five years. However, as she has seen the overall number and fitness levels of her senior clients increase, Baumgart said she has also noticed something of a counter-trend.
"We're treating a lot more younger people who are weak because they're sitting at computers all day, then they try to go play sports," Baumgart said.
Seniors also face physical challenges unique to their age group. According to the National Institute on Aging, while older Americans are enjoying longer lives and better physical function than previous generations, they struggle with rising obesity rates.
In 2009-2010, 38 percent of people age 65 and over were obese, compared with 22 percent in 1988-1994, according to a federal report.
But it's only a matter of time before the 65 and older crowd reverses that trend, if the folks in the "Lift & Lunch Crunch Bunch" at the Community Recreation Center in Great Barrington have anything to say about it. The group of about 40 men and a few women meets twice a week for a rigorous cardio and weight training workout. Afterward, they adjourn to the Barrington Brewery for lunch.
Sy Karpen of Otis, 86, said he is one of the youngsters in the group -- a claim contested by several fellow group members. But they did agree that the social element of their club is what keeps them coming back week after week.
"We've developed such a camaraderie," said Len Siegel, 86, of Austerlitz, N.Y. "Other places have exercise programs, but it's not the same."
"I have a gym at home here and I have a gym at home in Florida where I live, and I need a community to exercise. I won't exercise by myself," said Arthur Gilbert, 80, of Lee. "Because there's an active group, it draws me back to exercise."
Gilbert said the stretching and improvement in balance have been of greatest benefit to him. But it hasn't hurt his golf game, either.
"I've been a member here six years," said Karpen. "I walked in with a cane. And I'll tell you something -- you can overcome your aging. If you do these things, you're keeping loose, letting the blood circulate through the body. It's done wonders for me."
And as for the cane, said Karpen, "I keep it in the car, but I don't use it."
Jennifer McNulty, fitness director at the Community Recreation Center in Dalton, said many of the senior members at the center also enjoy the group fitness classes such as Splash-er-cise, Hi-Lo gym and the Gentle Yoga class, in part because of the social atmosphere.
Pellegrino, of the Berkshire South Regional Community Center, said the most popular classes among their senior members include Total Fitness, Yogalates, and Stretch.
Cooney said the myriad fitness options available now make it easier than ever to find something people like, and stick with it, Cooney said, whether it be hiking, volleyball, swimming, or karate.
"Mom and Dad didn't have yoga, pilates, and Zumba," he said. "Now, there's a [fitness] program for everyone. You don't have to be Michael Phelps -- just get out there and do what you can do."