As a geriatric kinesiologist, I believe companion walking is the secret to helping older adults move more.
Edna, a 92-year-old woman who lived in an assisted living community, sat next to her window every day, watching other residents go in and out on permitted outings.
She used a walker to get around but mostly stayed glued to her window, anticipating the day she would be cleared to go outside for a walk.
Suddenly, Edna heard a knock on her door with a friendly, “Hello? Mrs. Edna, are you awake? I am here to take you out for a walk. My name is Mercedes. I am one of the fitness trainers here. May I come in?”
The fitness center had received an inquiry from Edna’s family — they wanted one of the trainers to get her active. Edna’s dream had come true.
The fitness routine was open for interpretation. After attempts with resistance bands and light weights, Edna and I decided walking outside was much more fun and beneficial.
We walked twice a week for 6 months, together. As we bonded over nature, life issues, and warm, meaningful connection, Edna started going up hills on her own with her walker! She looked forward to that knock on her door every Tuesday and Thursday.
The biggest misconception in exercise is that harder is better. While that may be true for the young, buff, and super fit, it is counterintuitive for an older adult population.
Ever wonder why every part of your body suddenly started to hurt around age 30? As the human body ages, our structure naturally becomes more fragile (1).
Just like a car with a lot of miles, your body needs more tune-ups to keep it primed and going as you age and as injuries, disease, and ailments begin to accumulate.
In my experience as a geriatric kinesiologist and founder of Walk with Pop, a gentle approach to exercise for seniors is far more beneficial than heavy lifting. One fitness style does not fit all!
A lot of the time, the children of aging parents want to hire a personal trainer to get them moving again — but proceed with caution. It’s imperative to vet the trainer to confirm they have the knowledge and skill set for working with older adults, as senior fitness is a very small niche.
Older age has been associated with more sedentary time, as evidenced by Edna and her window daydreaming. Conclusive research has discovered that older adults spend up to 80% of their waking day not moving, with sedentary time increasing with age (2).
Physical activity is a vital component of optimal healthy aging and even decreases mortality rates in older populations (3).
Nearly 60% of adults who are inactive are more likely to report at least one of four chronic conditions (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, or cancer) than their physically active counterparts (1).
If that weren’t enough, research indicates that walking speed often predicts the life expectancy of older adults. Those who walk at a decent speed as they age are likely to outlive those who slow down or stop walking altogether (3, 4).
But it can be difficult to inspire movement in an aging population because muscle mass and strength decline with age, making former activities newly challenging (5).
I understand the urge to get Mom, Dad, or Grandma and Grandpa off the couch. I’ve been there, and I’ve pulled my hair out trying to teach my older loved ones to exercise, even as a skilled personal trainer for seniors!
But there is an easy solution that people don’t always consider: companion walking.
Through training older adults for 7 years, I found one universal activity they were all capable of doing and willing to do: walking.
All bodies are unique, with various types of ailments, injuries, and chronic conditions affecting each one differently. One older adult may be able to sustain a 15-minute cardio exercise program, while another may only be able to stand up from a chair 5 times in a row.
Yet walking is a universal, no-cost activity that most people can do, even if they need rest breaks. Walking together not only creates safety but also improves commonly affected social determinants of health such as loneliness, depression, and isolation (6).
Research published in the Journals of Gerontology affirms that adults who are more socially connected and engaged are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers (6).
Meanwhile, those with minimal to low socialization are more likely to die earlier (7).
What I want you to take away from this article is that there is a simple solution to keeping your aging loved ones healthy, happy, and mobile.
It’s not necessary to stress over finding a personal trainer or exercise class that may actually do more harm than good.
Helping your aging loved ones lead more physically active lives can be as simple as walking with them in the neighborhood or booking a walk for them with a trained companion.
Walk with Pop provides convenient and safe support in helping older adults get outside for a walk with a new friend. Older adults are paired with vetted, trained companions to walk and talk together in the comfort of their neighborhood.
With the social benefits of companion walking, especially after a daunting pandemic, lives can be prolonged.
Make an effort to walk or book a walk for your loved one once or twice a week, and keep up a steady pace. If you feel they need extra support, seek out an experienced trainer who works with older adults.
Like Edna, they may be dreaming of and looking forward to that one walk without you even knowing. I personally believe walking helped extend Edna’s life to 97 years.
Mercedes Fernandez is a geriatric kinesiologist and the founder of Walk with Pop. She helps older adults feel included and connected with others through companion walking. She holds a master’s degree in kinesiology with an extensive pre-medical background in psychology, anatomy, and nutrition. She is a certified senior fitness instructor and authorized CPR/First Aid responder under the American Red Cross. In addition to her professional experience, Mercedes was her grandfather’s primary caregiver, enriching her personal experience of senior healthcare. Her deeply rooted passion to serve older adults began at an early age, as she played piano at nursing homes at age 8. Today, Mercedes continues to have deep care and compassion for the older adults for whom she advocates.