Exercise is catching on among Israels elderly

Before 82-year-old Jerusalemite Moshe Levin joined an exercise class in 1994, he could barely walk on his own. The long-term effects of an injury he incurred as an American soldier during World War II had rendered him partially paralyzed, and even after he underwent a spine operation, Levin had a lot of trouble moving around.

“I was almost a wheelchair case,” said the former Palestine Post journalist, who moved from Pennsylvania to Israel with his wife in 1947.

The desk-bound lifestyle of a journalist didn’t help.

“For 60 years, I had been rather sedentary except for going out and reporting a lot. I saw that my muscles were starting to get weaker and weaker and my wife, who is a great enthusiast for the gym, suggested I take a class.”

That’s when he discovered Nira Orlev’s class. “This class really helps me,” he says. “It’s a great thing to do. It keeps my body a bit in tone.”

According to Orlev, who has taught exercise lessons to the elderly for the last 17 years and to high school children for several years before that, Levin is among 80 people aged 60 to 85 who have benefited from regular attendance.

Her 55-minute class, taught twice a week, consists of four parts: freestyle cardio; flexibility and stretching using chairs; free weights to strengthen and develop muscles; and a wind-down session focused on breathing and stretching.

“To have flexibility at this age, you must train at least three times a week,” says Orlev, who explains that in general, the elderly lack coordination, balance and flexibility.

“Once a week is not enough and twice a week is good. But, in order to maintain flexibility, you have to practice every day. If not, you lose everything.”

While repetition is the key to accomplishing results, instructing the elderly is a more complicated matter, requiring more careful attention than the instruction of youth.

“Oftentimes in elderly classes, it’s more complicated because each person requires personal attention given their particular set of circumstances,” says Dr. Debbie Hami-Bullard, founder of Hamidrasha Letarbut Haguf (Institute of Fitness America-Israel), a nonprofit organization based in Tel Aviv that has trained and certified fitness and health instructors for the elderly since 1994.

Hami-Bullard explains that almost every elderly person has something wrong with either the cardiovascular or muscular system, be it weaker bones, joint malfunctioning, cardiovascular problems or muscle degeneration. “It’s a different thing to exercise with ailments of the body,” she says.

Becoming an instructor requires a deeper understanding of the systems of the body and the process of aging.

“You have to learn how to apply special exercises both for elderly who are healthy and those who are slightly or severely disabled and/or confined to a chair or a bed.”

Dr. Mark Clarfield, professor at the faculty of health sciences at Ben-Gurion University and head of the geriatrics department at Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, says his biggest concern is for elderly with known heart, lung or joint diseases.

“If young people haven’t done exercise in a long time, it usually makes them stiff. But, for a person with heart disease who does something too big at first, it can kill them.” He cautions that people with such ailments should involve their physician in building an appropriate exercise program.

At the same time, Clarfield says exercise is one of the key elements of treatment for those diseases. The trick is to start off slowly and work your way up. “Start low and go slow,” says Clarfield. “Your body tells you when to stop, at any age.”

Aerobic exercise like biking, swimming, walking and running improves the functioning of the heart and lungs, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure and even helps prevent diabetes and osteoporosis in women, he says.

Exercise also has huge psychological effects. Says Clarfield, “People who exercise are generally happier than those who don’t.

“There is almost nobody who can’t do exercise,” he says. “Everybody can do something and at any age; any bit of exercise is 1,000 times better than no exercise. There doesn’t seem to be a [small enough] dose of exercise that isn’t beneficial.” Even the sick elderly can benefit from graded and carefully proscribed exercise, he says.

Hami-Bullard testifies to the increasing popularity of geriatric exercise in Israel. The Institute of Fitness America-Israel doubled its enrollment in the elderly fitness instructors’ course last year.

“The demand was so high last year that we held two six-month courses for the first time in 10 years,” she says. “The field is very active and growing.”

Even though the elderly are exercising more today than they used to, Clarfield cautions it is still not enough.

“I don’t do enough; I should exercise every day,” says Levin. “My mother, when she was 100 years old, was interviewed on television and they asked her, ‘To what do you attribute your old age?'” he recalls. “She said, ‘Every day I walked, walked, walked.’ And she did until she was 100.”