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67-year-old Thomas Mrazek is beaming with joy as he strengthens his leg muscles on the bike machine.
Coming to the gym twice a week has been a part of his weekly ritual for the past six and a half years.
“Always like walking and I still walk the dog every morning but just maintaining strength and flexibility and also doing yoga and that helps a lot and when you’re about to hit your sixties, you know, you want to keep going you have to do something for it. I think going to the gym is a good way of doing it.”
"You want to keep going you have to do something for it. I think going to the gym is a good way of doing it"
The vibe here at Brisbane’s Green Apple Wellness Centre is different from conventional gyms. The pace is less intense, it’s designed for members generally aged from fifty upwards.
This is what appealed to Cora Zanetti when she first decided to check out her local gym 16 years ago.
“I just felt at the time. I had become a widow and I was feeling I’d lost a lot of confidence but when I started here it all came back. It’s been great.”
At nearly 84, Zanetti works out five mornings a week from when the door opens at 5:30.
She speaks with SBS as she trains on the stepper.
“I’ve never been a real sports person even in my young days. I’ve just found here, I get everything that I need in that time I’m here plus the social aspect and everybody here is friendly and I just love coming.”
Professor Maria Fiatarone Singh is a geriatrician based at Sydney University.
She believes that structured exercise programs a gym can offer is an effective strategy to fight the usual symptoms of frailty in old age.
“The older you are the more important it becomes to do some kind of exercises to stimulate your muscular skeletal system because that starts to decline at around age 30"
“The older you are the more important it becomes to do some kind of exercises to stimulate your muscular skeletal system because that starts to decline at around age 30. By the time you hit 80 years of age, you've lost about 75% of your muscle power and about 40% or so of your muscle size. So, unfortunately, the kinds of activities that are most common that things like walking and things that you could do without most kinds of equipment do improve your aerobic capacity or cardiovascular function but that don't address this loss of muscle that we call sarcopenia.”
She says that older people who are frail with chronic diseases are the exact kind of people who should be working out to improve their conditions.
It’s not really about whether you go to a gym or not, rather, it’s about whether or not you do specific exercises like strength training or weightlifting.
“And we know now that from lots of different studies that sarcopenia is a major contributant to frailty and disability and falls and institutionalisation and even early mortality so the purpose of doing a different kind of exercise which generally means some kind of weight lifting exercise or what we call progressive resistance training is really to combat sarcopenia and all the clinical syndromes and diseases that are associated with it.”
The owner of the Green Apple Wellness Centre, Victoria Gill, has been running the gym for 40 years.
She says many of the members are referred by doctors to improve their health such as people with type 2 diabetes who are showing signs of ageing.
Or those in their seventies who can’t balance properly and thus need strength and coordination training.
"It doesn't mean to say that they won’t be able to do it with the right sort of guidance and appropriate exercise.”
“It can be people who are 80 years of age who want to stay living independently so that they are doing activities that enable them to being able to get down on floor and up again These are the sorts of things that as people get older what was easy when they were young becomes virtually impossible at a later age but it doesn't mean to say that they won’t be able to do it with the right sort of guidance and appropriate exercise.”
With members training right up to their mid-nineties, gym instructor Darrol Enchelmaier says it’s important that novices unfamiliar with gym equipment are not left on their own.
“And you’re supervised so you’re not going to do any damage to yourself. We don't force people to do anything that they don't want to do or anything that they can’t do. It’s all about working within your limitations.”
Gill observes that cultural attitudes tend to limit a woman’s ability to participate in fitness programs.
She sees that the collaboration between the doctor, physical trainer and family in coming up with a plan that everyone can agree with as the solution to breaking down the barriers.
"It’s not just what they could do, it’s what they think that they will be allowed to do and that's one of the biggest challenges”
“We’ve got people from India, Italy, so many different countries. If they come from a culture where they need to go back and talk to their husband about what they’re going to be doing, they’re very much guided by what the husband feels that they should be doing so when you’re discussing anything with them, it’s not just what they could do, it’s what they think that they will be allowed to do and that's one of the biggest challenges.”
Gill has witnessed some amazing transformations that go beyond physical health in her forty years of running the centre.
“On a daily basis, we have people coming and saying my bone density has improved. I used to have knee pain and it’s so much better now. I can keep with my grandchildren. Just their mood. Someone was telling me the other day that prior to coming to Green Apple she tried to commit suicide and she said I only realised how much I had improved when my son actually said to me mum I’ve never seen you so happy.”
Panida Sammapuksakit is a lean 54-year-old having been working out three times a week for the past seven years.
She says coming to the gym doesn't necessarily change you over night, but she does wonder at times how her life might turn out if she hadn’t been working out regularly.
“If I am not coming to the gym like for six years seven years, I might be fat or I might be doing things and get tired easily.”
As a fit 71-year-old, Victoria Gill says she doesn’t see any limitation on herself, and that's what many older gym-goers are striving for.
"It’s really not an age thing, it’s an attitude of mind and whether or not they think it’s going to be something that they can cope with.”
“These days, they realised that they are becoming older and they’re living longer and they don't want to be sitting in a nursing home in a chair not able to do things. They want to be living independently, they want to be doing things. We’ve got people up to you know mid-nineties so it’s really not an age thing, it’s an attitude of mind and whether or not they think it’s going to be something that they can cope with.”