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Transform your body with exercise

With regular exercise, including resistance training, seniors have managed to regain strength and stamina for physical activities

Akshita Nanda on 14 Jul 2019

The Straits Times


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From a 63-year-old muay thai trainer who is fitter now than before he began exercising in his 40s to an 87-year-old grandmother who no longer needs a wheelchair after three months of strength training, regular exercise could help people hack their bodies and reverse some ill effects of age.


Six months ago, Madam Chong Kim Hai was in a wheelchair, finding it hard to walk because of back and leg pain caused by a narrowing of the joints in her spine.


After months of resistance training under the guidance of a physiotherapist, the 87-year-old can now walk for half an hour without stopping and no longer needs the wheelchair to get around.


"I have more endurance. There is less pain in my legs. I'm more relaxed in the evenings and sleep well at night," she says.


These days, Madam Chong exercises four times a week for an hour each session.


Two sessions are spent doing aerobic and strength training at a Housing Board void deck under a programme set up by Touch Community Services. The other two sessions are at the Gym Tonic strength training programme for the elderly developed by the Lien Foundation, together with health technology company PulseSync.


The idea behind the Gym Tonic programme is that exercise is medicinal and can reduce or reverse physical symptoms in senior citizens, such as low stamina, weakness and trouble with walking.


Senior citizens such as Madam Chong are guided through a 12-week programme of exercises on "smart" machines that look similar to gym equipment, but can be adjusted to a resistance low enough for frail users to push against.


Asked to demonstrate, Madam Chong gets up confidently from her chair without assistance and walks over to the machines at the Gym Tonic outlet in Ang Mo Kio.


As she starts on exercises meant to strengthen her legs, chest, abs and hips, the sight of friends in wheelchairs motivates her to keep exercising "since I can do more than them".


It was reported last month that Singaporeans topped the world in life expectancy in 2017, with an expected lifespan at birth of 84.8 years. However, 10.6 of these years would be spent in poor health, according to the Burden of Disease in Singapore 1990-2017 report, by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation in the United States in collaboration with the Ministry of Health.


Gym Tonic programmes were first deployed in nursing homes and senior care centres in 2015 and are now being extended to 32 locations around the island, with community partners such as Touch Community Services and ActiveSG Gym@Our Tampines Hub.


So many users have benefited from the programme and want to continue with it that the Lien Foundation is looking for more community partners with suitable spaces to open similar gyms.


Another senior citizen who saw his body transform after only three months of strength training under Gym Tonic is Mr Eric Wong, a former carpenter.


Now 77, he is on medication for diabetes and used to worry about falls when walking. After 12 weeks of exercise, he confidently climbs overhead bridges.


"Now, when I meet my friends, they say I look very healthy," he says with a laugh. The diabetes is under control as well.


"My advice for the younger generation is that they should start training now if they can, so they will be healthy when they are older."


Many older people worry about starting to exercise late in life.


Mr Spencer Soh, a 63-year-old personal trainer with Fitness First Singapore, says: "There are a lot of myths about exercising, such as that inactivity is the safest thing to do when you age. This is totally wrong. Inactivity will cause you to deteriorate."


The muay thai trainer says he is fitter now than when he started exercising in his 40s. In the 1990s, he had a pot belly and worked two jobs - as a musician and in nightclub security - which meant his mealtimes were irregular and he often ate unhealthily.


That slowly changed when he joined Fitness First Singapore and took up Thai boxing. Now, he has a visible six-pack and trains clients from 6.30am to 8pm almost every day.


But he notes that functional fitness - the ability to move, pick up heavy things and bend easily - is about more than showy muscles.


"For the elderly, I recommend that they move their bodies. I don't use the term 'exercise' because it scares them," he says. "Make them do something fun that progresses to a passion, like line dancing."


He has his own long-term exercise regime worked out - when muay thai becomes too tough on his body, he will move on to cycling, which puts less stress on the joints, and lift lighter weights.


The biggest problem as people age is that they tend to lose muscle mass because of inactivity and this makes it more difficult to participate in everyday activities.


Senior physiotherapist Vivian Lim, 34, works with Touch Community Services' Gym Tonic programme and offers hope to older people who may be very weak, perhaps because they are recovering from an illness.


She has worked to strengthen clients who are home-bound, starting them with simple physical activities such as getting a glass of water from the kitchen or wiping the table. As their stamina improves, they go on to do a short walk in the neighbourhood.


Social connections are as important as exercise, she says.


"I brought a client out for a walk in the neighbourhood and a neighbour asked why the client hadn't been seen for a while. The fact that someone noticed you have been missing, that connection does make a lot of difference."


Similarly, she notes clients bonding during Gym Tonic sessions and afterwards sitting down for a chat.


"I feel it's very crucial, the sense of belonging, this sense of community. We recognise that it's not just the physical part that makes a difference," she says.




A voracious appetite for art and simple meals has kept pioneer painter Lim Tze Peng active and continuing to paint even at the age of 97.


Right now, the oldest living member of Singapore's second-generation artists is preparing for his first solo show in India, at the historic Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai from Aug 3 to Sept 16.


Every day, he climbs a flight of stairs to his second-floor home studio in Telok Kurau and works on his visual art.


"I go up and down these stairs seven or eight times a day," the father of six says in Mandarin, through an interpreter.


In the past year, he has painted five new abstract works, each taller than he is, for the upcoming The Spirit Of Ink exhibition. The showcase in India will include his past paintings, which are rooted in the art of Chinese calligraphy.


Born in September 1921, Lim was a school principal who began painting in the 1950s.


He made it his life's work after he retired. The self-taught artist received Singapore's highest arts honour, the Cultural Medallion, in 2003 and, four years later, had his first solo show at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing.


Others his age or younger may be battling severe health issues. Lim says his hands and eyes remain strong. He demonstrates this by touching up a canvas. "One ear can't hear so well, but the other is still good," he adds with a smile.


He credits his good health to his passion for painting and a "simple, systematic life", where he follows the same routine every day.


He wakes before 8.30am, has a morning walk, eats cereal for breakfast and reads the newspaper. Lunch is a bowl of porridge, after which he heads to his studio to paint. Dinner is equally simple. He also walks around the neighbourhood again with his wife, Madam Soh Siew Lay.


"I follow a systematic lifestyle so my mind is clear to paint," he says.


"I'm also very cautious in terms of eating. I don't eat greasy food. I don't like fatty meats. If I'm thirsty, I drink water."


Painting might also be keeping him healthy. "Writing calligraphy is exercise. You look up and down, your body is moving."


As he inches towards his 100th birthday, what advice does he want to pass on to younger folk? He proffers these words: Never argue, always be honest, do something that you love and perform charitable acts.


"I think my mental health is good because I think about good things," he says. "I never criticise people. During an argument, I will use reasonable words, not anger. I feel that the foundation of good calligraphy is having a good personality."


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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