Exercise not only helps add years to your life, it adds life to your years

Retired teacher Helen Brown may have quit teaching in 1988, but she didn’t slow down. Brown, an Auburn resident since the 1960s, volunteers several times per week, attends Olli (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) classes at Auburn University, visits people with her church, plays bridge, and still finds time to squeeze in a workout at HealthPlus Fitness Center twice per week.

Helen Brown also happens to be 98 years old.

“Staying active gives me energy,” Brown explains. “I don’t feel any different than I did 10 or 20 years ago. I’ve always been active—I swam, hiked, and was active raising my three children. I had never been a member of a gym before, but I joined HealthPlus more than 10 years ago and have been going ever since.”

Brown explains that as she has gotten older, she has never considered taking a break from exercise. “I look forward to it and enjoy it,” she says.

“The people are the best part—we do a lot of coffee drinking and talking—the community at HealthPlus is important to me. The main thing I work on is my balance and the trainers are great, they are always coming up with something new and different for me to do. Often, I don’t think I’ll be able to do an exercise, but the trainers are so encouraging and before you know, I can do it! It’s helping me maintain where I am and I’m certainly not getting any worse with my balance. They keep it interesting and every class is different.”

“Some of the biggest reasons that elderly people are hesitant to join a gym include a fear of falling, a fear of something major happening while they are exercising, like cardiac arrest, and lack of energy,” Rachel Carswell, M.Ed., HealthPlus trainer explains. “However, those are also some of the key reasons why they should start an exercise program, regardless of their age.”

Carswell, who previously worked in cardiac and pulmonary rehab, primarily works with the geriatric, oncology and post-menopausal members at HealthPlus. She explains that often she finds that people are surprised by their progress.

“Members will tell me that they have trouble getting out of bed, or out of their car, but little by little, even if you have never exercised before, small changes will improve your life,” Carswell adds.

“Sometimes it’s scary to get started, but one of the best things about HealthPlus is that the certified, knowledgeable staff are here to help. All of the trainers at HealthPlus have studied exercise science, and as part of your membership, we will help teach you how to use all the equipment, and walk you through a program that would be the right fit for you.”

Carswell notes that some of the benefits of regular exercise for the geriatric population include improvements in memory, improving the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's, increased energy, improved management of type 2 diabetes, improved organ function, and builds strength to improve more quickly from injuries.

“We work with diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, musculoskeletal disorder and ALS patients, among others,” Carswell says. “Our qualified staff understand that just because there are barriers doesn’t mean that you cannot be active. Studies show that no matter what part of your life you start, regular physical activity will still have an impact on the longevity and quality of your life.”

Morris Gillespie, another senior member at HealthPlus, can be seen most days each week on the bikes or walking the track. The long-time Auburn resident and 89-year-old still drives himself to the gym three days per week and the regular activity helps him manage his osteoporosis and spinal stenosis.

“At Health Plus, I have an opportunity for professionals to help me plan what activities I need to do when I come to the gym,” Gillespie says. “I used to walk in the neighborhood, but the pollen started to bother me. At HealthPlus, I can walk inside on the track, even when the weather gets bad.”

Gillespie, who worked for the USDA soil conservation service for many years, explains that his job kept him active before he retired.

“When I worked in Tennessee, I was with farmers outside a lot,” he says. “And when we moved to Auburn in 1968, I would walk two miles to work every day for exercise. I had a heart attack about five years ago and attended cardiac rehab. Once I finished rehab I rotated back to my routine at HealthPlus.”

For Gillespie, the community at HealthPlus is a big reason to keep coming back. “To me, one reason to exercise is to keep your body strong, but the extra plus for coming over here is the social part,” he says.

“I enjoy seeing my friends when I get here, and making new ones throughout the years. I think HealthPlus did a good job developing the coffee and newspaper area when they built the facility. It’s a good place to gather and see people you know.”

“No matter what part of your life you start working out, it has been proven over and over that exercise will improve your basic functions and your daily life,” Carswell explains.

“A phrase we use a lot at HealthPlus is ‘exercise will not only help add years to your life, it will add life to your years.’ What we mean by that is that exercise improves your quality of life, not just your longevity.”

Once a new member joins HealthPlus, staff members are always available to help the first few times a member starts out, so they know what to do and how to do it. “We want everyone, regardless of age or level, to be comfortable,” Carswell notes.

“Safety is a big priority for us as well. We are trained to be observant and help out members if we see they may need some guidance. Even if a member chooses to do their own thing while they’re at the gym, our certified staff are continually monitoring the floor—all of our members are in good hands.”

Both Gillespie and Brown note the impact the community, not just physical activity, has made on their lives and Carswell echoes that element of HealthPlus.

“I love the community here—overtime, you can see the difference it makes in people’s lives,” Carswell says. “Some of my clients didn’t know anyone when they first joined; now they’ve made friends here and they’re even meeting outside of the gym for coffee or lunch and are getting out of their house more. The social aspect of our program really can be life-changing for members. 

"While many commercial gyms are more concerned with volumes, I think there’s magic here for people who come in and spend some time with their HealthPlus community before or after they workout—it brightens their day. For some, their schedule is filled with doctor’s appointments or therapy, and this is the highlight of their day.

"Seeing the difference in members’ attitudes and demeanor over time speaks to the camaraderie here," Carswell says. "It’s about more than just being physically fit.”


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