BallroomWorks photo
Dancing can improve health and break isolation.
BallroomWorks photo
Dancing can improve health and break isolation.
For today's seniors, there is more to life than Bingo.

Doctors say elders can have a better quality of life if they stay fit. Maintaining strength and flexibility can mean the difference between being stuck on the couch or popping up for walk, rocking the day away or going on vacation.

Seniors can accomplish fitness in a number of ways, from hitting the weights to cutting the rug.

Common problems for those in their 70s include loss of muscle strength and bone density, vision and hearing loss, inner ear balance loss, says Jacqueline Sinke, owner of Fitness and Function, a Portland business that caters to elders.

Maintaining muscle strength and mobility can forestall a lot of problems, Sinke explains. For example, exercise tends to improve posture and reduce back pain. And stronger muscles can help maintain bone density — music the ears for seniors who fear broken bones from falls.

When it comes to preventing falls, there are exercises that can help compensate for the dizziness that comes with inner ear problems or the balance problems that come with numb feet.

When it comes to weight training, Sinke recommends that seniors start where comfortable and then work their way up.  

"Older adults can work at high intensity of weight training," Sinke says. "And high amounts of muscle power are necessary for successful aging."

Hitting the weights may help you get out of the car, climb the stairs and stay steady during late night trips to the bathroom.

Sinke recalls one 93-year-old client who seemed destined for the nursing home. But training has helped him stay at home and prevent falls.  

For seniors who like their exercise to come with music and perhaps an enchanting partner, Beaverton-based BallroomWorks uses dance to promote fitness and social well being.

Instructors design individual programs, taking into account age, mobility and goals. In addition to individual dance lessons, there is group instruction and a monthly dance party.   

Laura Barker, owner of BallroomWorks, says seniors benefit especially from dance because it is a mental, as well as a physical, workout. Using the mind to memorize steps and make spontaneous decisions when out on the floor has proven good for function.

One study found that while doing a crossword four times per week reduced risk of dementia by 47 percent, frequent dancing offered a 76 percent risk reduction.  

Many elders turn to dance after heart surgery, strokes and even the onset of dementia.

Others come after the death of a spouse. Barker says that those 70 and older tend to recall old steps they once knew, but also learn new dances. A few elders explain to Barker that they never danced because their childhood religion forbad it.  

For some, dance is mostly for enjoyment. For others, it's a lifesaver. Barker cites a Vietnam veteran who broke his back as a paratrooper and was exposed to agent orange. He had lost feeling in his feet and had limited range of motion. He was not expected to live much longer.

But after dance, his health has improved. Doctors at the VA medical center say his range of motion has increased by 30 percent and note a big improvement in steadiness.  

"Dancing can really help balance," Barker observes. "You learn to be more self aware. You learn where you are putting weight."

Barker reports that among seniors, the foxtrot is tops, followed by swing. But she also teaches waltz, tango, rumba, samba and hustle.