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Exercise Boot Camp for Boomers

By Jaimie Lazare

Fitness boot camps attract boomers who seek regimented exercise programs to stay in shape.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative may be helping to raise awareness about childhood obesity, but physical inactivity among elders is also a major public health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the time they reach the age of 75, 33% of men and 50% of women engage in no physical activity. To help boost physical activity among baby boomers, exercise programs are being designed especially for them, and fitness boot camps have emerged as one interesting trend.

“Boot camps have been around a while now and show no signs of fading in popularity any time soon,” says Leigh Crews, a fitness expert, spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, and finalist for the IDEA Health & Fitness Association 2010 Fitness Instructor of the Year Award. “According to a survey by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), boot camps are among the top fitness trends for 2011. While group fitness has always attracted women, boot camps also attract men who like the military, non-dancey style of training that a boot camp provides.”

Baby boomers may think of themselves as just as active and fit as they used to be, and as a 54-year-old trainer with more than 30 years of experience in the fitness industry, Crews has found that older adults have more free time and more discretionary income to spend on the recreational activities they enjoy. That has generated particular interest in boot camps and has caused them to be perceived as programs where older adults can achieve numerous goals in a short period of time, which is appealing to the boomer market, she says.

At the Medical University of South Carolina’s (MUSC) Wellness Center, older adults often enroll in the adult boot camp led by U.S. Marines. Program director Janis Newton says staff personnel closely monitor first-time boot camp participants and separate them from the rest of the class for the first couple of weeks, enabling them to properly learn the military exercises that include lots of running and calisthenics. Newton, with her extensive experience in fitness, finds that some older adults can keep up with younger participants.

The program’s military structure focuses on solidarity, so participants support each other and push those who need it most to reach their potential. “So what it creates is a camaraderie that is beyond anything you can imagine, and it creates accountability because in the Marines, it's [about] honor, courage, and integrity,” Newton says. “People are challenged to focus and participate in an activity at a level that they probably never really have [achieved previously].” 

Mary Little, MD, is a 58-year-old family physician in private practice with her husband in Summerville, S.C. When she first joined MUSC’s boot camp, Little says, “It was extraordinarily hard.” A few weeks into the program, she was ready to give up. But a drill instructor motivated and challenged her to improve her performance in class, which she did. Since joining, she’s repeated the program several times.

In 2009, Little was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery. Determined to continue with her workout, she returned to boot camp only to discover that the routine was too vigorous. She experienced discomfort at the site where fat tissue was removed from her abdomen for her reconstructive breast surgery. Little opted for a different MUSC program for women, which she reports is a step down in terms of intensity. But it’s working very well for her, and she can continue to exercise.

Crews also started a fitness program designed for older adults called Zoomer Boot Camp. “[This] program is all about putting together appropriate exercise options for the active 50-plus age group. ‘Zoomer’ is a term used to describe active baby boomers who want to stay in shape but may not be able to do the same activities that they did in their 20s, 30s, or even 40s,” says Crews. “This is the fitness generation—we grew up on Jack LaLanne, Jane Fonda, and Richard Simmons. This group wants to maintain the active lifestyle they have always enjoyed. The exercises are challenging yet recognize the needs of older adults who might have previous injuries or the beginnings of arthritis and/or osteoporosis.”

Rx for Fitness
Exercise Is Medicine (EIM), a nonprofit organization developed by the ACSM in 2007, has designed guidelines for physicians to promote physical activity among their patients. EIM’s guiding principles indicate that physicians should allocate time to focus on exercise and physical activity for their patients by utilizing the Health Care Providers’ Action Guide. The guide directs clinicians to either write an exercise prescription or refer patients to a certified health and fitness professional specializing in exercise counseling. The EIM guide suggests that physicians ask their patients questions such as, “Do you currently exercise? If so, what activities do you engage in? How long and how often do you exercise?”  (For more information, visit http://exerciseismedicine.org/documents/HCProActionGuide_LQ.pdf.)

When it comes to exercise recommendations for older adults, Laura C. Hanson, MD, MPH, an associate professor in the division of geriatric medicine at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and codirector of the Palliative Care Program, says, “Fitness boot camps for the elderly are unstudied. We have strong evidence for the benefits of exercise in older adults but not for fitness boot camps.”

Hanson stresses that there’s strong evidence to support the benefits of resistance exercise programs such as weightlifting under the guidance of a coach, as well as tai chi, which has been shown to improve flexibility and balance that can help to reduce the fear of falling or the risk of falls, both of which are concerns for older patients. 

Whenever doctor-patient dialogue related to fitness takes place—whether the program involves boot camp, Zumba, or other activities in which your older patients are interested—it’s an ideal way to open discussions on getting fit. “I think it’s important for somebody in a doctor-patient relationship to raise the issue of exercise on a routine basis,” Hanson says. “It’s a really prudent topic to discuss because it has a lot of implications for health and well-being.” 

Hanson notes that if a patient is comfortable running a mile and engages in a routine exercise program that increases his or her heart rate and blood pressure at least three times per week for a sustained period of time, then they’re probably functioning at a level where looking at a fitness boot camp may be reasonable. But if a patient’s major form of physical activity is walking the dog at a slow pace on fairly level ground for 30 minutes three times per week, then he or she is probably not ready for fitness boot camp. Hanson emphasizes that a patient’s chronologic age provides physicians with less information than his or her functional status, so discussing options with patients interested in fitness boot camps should be done on a case-by-case basis. 

Hanson suggests that to foster improved dialogue on activity and fitness expectations for you and your older patients, whether or not they’re interested in trying a fitness boot camp, it’s best to schedule a dedicated wellness visit that focuses specifically on preventive activities related to exercise.

— Jaimie Lazare is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.