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Last updated: Sun. Apr. 27, 2014 - 01:00 am EDT

Exercise not just for the fit

Aging population looking to feel better, stay active

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Tammy Dickmeyer holds out her left wrist, which has a scattering of little scars from surgery for a carpal-tunnel condition and another problem.

“I couldn’t exercise until I found this place,” she says. “I can’t put any pressure on my wrist. Like a push-up; I couldn’t do that.”

Dickmeyer, 51, of Roanoke is standing in the lobby after a class at Longevity Fitness, 7127 W. Jefferson Blvd. The business specializes in what’s become a growing fitness market. Its clients aren’t people out to drop weight by Memorial Day or sculpt that perfect Brazilian behind.

As the population ages, and awareness of the benefits of exercise increases, more people with chronic medical conditions, which limit their ability to do a standard fitness regimen, are wanting effective, moderate exercise that will help them feel better and stay active.

In class with Dickmeyer on a recent Friday was one woman who uses exercise to ease migraines, another with arthritis and another with fibromyalgia, an autoimmune condition that causes sensitivity throughout the body’s muscles and joints.

Two other class members, a 70-year-old retired first-grade teacher and a pregnant 31-year-old former soccer and basketball player, have back problems.

Erin Long, Longevity’s owner, says she and other instructors routinely adapt exercises and classes to their participants’ physical conditions.

“The majority of people who come in here are 40 and over, and almost every one of them has some sort of issue,” she says.

An hour earlier at Pranayoga’s downtown studio at 1301 Lafayette St., owner Dani McGuire has just started a private session with retired Fort Wayne resident Ron Smith, 65.

Smith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007. He’s suffered through medication reactions and depression since then, as he developed the condition’s characteristic muscle tremors and cramping and nerve dysfunction in his hands and feet.

“It’s one of those things when you have a chronic disease. Instead of thinking what you can do, you think about all the things (you) can’t do,” he says. “The thing of it was that when you have problems like that you go into hiding.”

Indeed, Smith says, he became so isolated and sedentary that his muscles had started to atrophy. At one point, he says, he found it difficult even to get up from a chair and couldn’t get down on the floor.

Now, about a year into practicing yoga after prodding by his neurologist, he easily sits cross-legged on a floor mat. He lies on his back with a rolled-up mat under his neck as McGuire leads him through breathing exercises.

Then, after a series of movements akin to a gentle pelvic tilt, Smith works up to an exercise in which he bends his left knee while keeping his left foot flat on a 4-inch-high block and places his right ankle on top of his left knee. He’s asked to push against the ground through his feet.

“When Dani said, ‘Push with your toes,’ I can’t really feel whether I’m pushing with my toes or not, on my left foot especially,” he says.

“So you have to imagine it,” McGuire replies, adding that focusing on the movement will engage the muscles throughout the body that contribute to it.

McGuire calls what she teaches – both privately and in classes – adaptive yoga, which means she changes positions and exercises and other class content to suit the needs of individual participants. Through a foundation, the business also provides free yoga classes tailored to cancer patients, occasionally working around the need for supplemental oxygen or a medical port, she says.

But, she adds: “The goal of our class is really community. To get out there and have community support is very important.

“We always take surveys (after classes), and the thing almost always across the board that people check is that they have more vitality – more energy and well-being – and they’re feeling more enthusiasm for life and healthy living.”

Around Fort Wayne, exercise options for the medically challenged are proliferating. At area YMCAs, about one third of the membership comes from what Wendy Spitznagel, director of health initiatives, calls “special populations.”

Those needing individual attention have become so prevalent that the facilities offer a free consultation with a wellness director who addresses concerns and helps design an appropriate routine for newcomers with health issues.

“In the past, people would think of exercise as for fit people, people who do marathons. But anymore, we just want to get people up and moving,” she says.

“I also think with physicians diagnosing more of those (chronic) conditions, they are asking patients to get past just medicine alone.”

Classes at area YMCAs vary by location and are generally not geared to individual diseases and conditions, Spitznagel says.

But she adds, “A lot of the regular classes can be a fit for special populations, so long as the instructor is aware of who is in the class.”

The YMCA branches are getting more into specialized classes, however. One is a relatively new offering called EnhanceFitness, geared for older adults and suitable for those with arthritis, Spitznagel says. Another is the Livestrong program, which specializes in physical activity for people with cancer and will start May 19 at the Parkview Y.

Mark Walden, a physical therapist at St. Joseph Hospital, says it’s best if people with medical conditions consult their physician before starting an exercise program, especially if they’re leery about just walking into a health club and signing up for a class.

“If they have medical issues, they can talk to a doctor about prescribing a short course of physical therapy so they can learn what is safe for them to do,” he says. “Instead of stopping their activity, and becoming more sedentary, they can learn to pace themselves and modify (exercise) so they can do it.”

At Longevity, those modifications extend to the equipment used, Long says.

The studio has about a dozen RealRyder indoor cycling bikes, Long says. They move side to side and also take much of the spinal torque out of spin classes, “so if you have back issues you’re not held at a fixed point all the time,” she says.

Along one wall are a series of pulleys that allow exercises to strengthen and tone the arms and shoulders without getting on the floor and doing push-ups, and if they want to do abdominal crunches, participants lean against a volleyball-sized rubber ball placed at the small of their back to support it. The facility also includes free weights for strength training.

“Everything we do we do with an instructor, so even if you are in a class, you are working with someone who is certified and can modify (exercises) for the conditions people have,” Long says.

“People who come here don’t have supermodel bodies, and they don’t want to,” she adds. “They just know the more active you are for as long as you can be will prolong your life, make you healthier, and let you do the activities you want to do every day.”


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