Exercise regimens pay health dividends for Las Vegas seniors

Thump-two-three-four-Thump-two-three-four-Thump-two-three-four-Thump-two-three-four …

Billie Jean is not their lover.

It’s just a song that serves as Dance No. 1.

Jacko’s moves aren’t just for the young.

■ ■ ■

That’s exer-tainment: Five seniors in a line-dancing performance born of an exercise class, in black-and-white, hat-to-shoes Michael Jackson garb, each sporting Jax’s signature spangly glove. Feel the beat? Fellow seniors can, head-bopping along in the audience at the Southwest Medical Associates Lifestyle Center at 5820 S. Eastern Ave.

Know what? They’re pretty good. Even better, they’re good and sweaty.

"It started as exercise class and it’s gotten to what you see today, and then some," says happily exhausted Richard Gagan, 70, sweat dotting his

forehead. "It’s good mentally," says Thelma Domsky, 78. "We have to remember what we’re doing, which at our age isn’t easy."

Seniors can bend their bods with (supervised) abandon with an array of beneficial exercises in which their bodies’ willingness to obey could surprise them.

"There’s an element of fear because they’re not sure it’s safe, but once we go through the discussion, I see them doing more activities than my younger population of patients that have disease," says Dr. George Scleparis, SMA’s chief of cardiology. "For aerobic and strength training, flexibility and balance, you don’t have to do crazy things to get fit in those areas. You can tailor someone’s program to what their physical level is."

As baby boomers inflate this demographic nationwide, the senior population in Nevada is, well, booming. "Key Health Indicators for Nevada’s Elders," a 2007 study conducted at the University of Nevada, Reno, reported that as boomers retire en masse, our senior population is projected to balloon from 11.2 percent in 2004 to 18.6 percent in 2030.

Should projections hold, our elders will also be more robust. UNR’s report claims that in 2005, Nevada seniors outpaced the national average for engaging in vigorous physical activity — 16.9 percent here versus 14.1 percent nationwide.

"We show our patients studies that even into your late 80s, exercise can produce increased life span and quality of life," says Dr. Daniel Frank, physician team leader for SMA’s lifestyle centers. Regular exercise got a big boost from the Journal of Gerontology, which published a recent study showing that it shrinks the risk of a host of ills, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, osteoporosis, bone fractures, colon and breast cancer, anxiety, depression and memory loss.

Particularly persuasive for seniors, Frank says, is that exercise cuts by 30 percent the risk of falls, which — either by the falls or complications stemming from them — is the fifth-most common cause of death for people over 65.

Beyond SMA (a second lifestyle center is at 8680 W. Cheyenne Ave.), numerous local facilities offer programs, including city of Las Vegas-run centers.

Since exercising is a no-brainer, what are the best (and most fun) choices?

"Are my knees cracking?" asks Millie Devic, 78, at the SMA center, her torso in motion and arm on the downswing wielding the Wii remote that controls the virtual bowling ball barreling toward the pins on an overhead screen. "That’s good; it makes the calcium go away."

Without the weight of genuine sports equipment and the stress of being in the actual environment, but with the colorful 3-D approximation of numerous activities, the Nintendo video games offer an ideal mild workout for seniors that sharpens hand-eye coordination.

"The bowling, the baseball, there’s a lot of games the seniors can play," Scleparis says. "They’re moving their upper extremities and extending their lower extremities and they don’t realize it because they’re just having fun doing bowling or archery."

Competition between Wii-playing seniors gets the blood going, too. "It’s competitive, but it’s not vicious," Devic says about the bowling, which began with four bowlers and has expanded into a 20-person league.

"The golf is frustrating. There’s a lot of water on the course and I always end up in the pool. We’re figuring it out. Then we play Frisbee on the Wii and pingpong. You feel like you’ve done something."

Elsewhere at SMA, seniors can participate in Qi Gong (pronounced "chee-gung"), an ancient Chinese system of postures, movement and meditation emphasizing breathing and balance, and "Commit to Fit," a new chair-based exercise program that can strengthen the arms, torso, legs and back while seated.

Caveats apply, though. "When a senior goes into 24-Hour Fitness and they have them trying to stand up on an exercise ball and balance themselves, I go over and intervene," Scleparis says. "It’s important for people who aren’t used to exercising to make sure there’s nothing underlying that will hurt them with exercise or uncontrolled hypertension."

Toward that end, Frank says, a doctor’s evaluation is necessary before seniors begin exercise routines. "In a physical exam, we’ll ask them what their capability is," Frank says. " ‘Can you walk up a flight of stairs or do exercise on a regular basis?’ As long as somebody doesn’t have an unstable medical condition, you can start at the level they’re working out and then push them a little harder. If somebody currently just does a few stairs and a little housework, you can start with a chair-based exercise."

Eventually, that could lead all the way to Michael Jackson impersonations.

After entering to the swelling strains of the "2001: A Space Odyssey" theme, lumbering like cavemen/women in sync with the film’s opening scenes, the classmates-turned-performers straighten up and moonwalk (well, kinda) to the famous backbeat of "Billie Jean." (Is there an MTV talent scout in the audience?)

"If you like music, this is for you," says dancer June Perri-Giorgi, 69. "It’s very important as you age to keep your agility and movement going. You’re done if you stop."

Why stop?

Four more hoofers join in as these senior Rockettes kick and step to more numbers, including Frank Sinatra’s "New York, New York" (twirling their canes and themselves), Billy Ray Cyrus’ "Achy-Breaky Heart" (costume change into cowboy hats, scarves and vests) and "Take Me Home, Country Roads" (with woo-hoo-laced do-si-dos).

"We’re so thankful to be finished," says relieved-but-invigorated dancer Mary Potter, 72. "But we’re happy because we’ve accomplished something."

With Halloween on the horizon, would it be asking too much for their next performance to feature "Thriller"?

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

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