Across the country, more and more fitness equipment aimed at senior centers is coming on the market. From a health standpoint, it makes sense. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) notes that regular cardiovascular exercise can help seniors strengthen the heart and muscles, boost energy and endurance, and control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Strength training is important, too. Adults lose 4-6 lbs. of muscle tissue per decade, which means a significant loss of body strength and a lower resting metabolism. However, adults who undergo structured strength-training have been shown “to regain lost muscle mass, increase their strength, metabolism, and bone density, and improve their quality of life.”
Because of the particular needs of their bodies, older adults have different exercise goals than those of the younger set. As reported in an NBC News feature, seniors want to lose weight, but they are “particularly focused on improving their posture, lowering their cholesterol, increasing bone against osteoporosis, alleviating joint pain, and avoiding falls.”
These goals have been recognized by fitness manufacturers whose catalogs include options far more specialized than the bench presses, treadmills, and racks of free weights found at gyms for 25-year-old hard bodies. For instance, the exercise and nutrition site FitBuzz recommends a lat pull-down machine or seated row to help seniors increase back strength and improve posture, an elliptical machine or recumbent bike for a cardio workout that boosts the heart rate and is easy on the joints, and a session on the rowing machine to strengthen the core, shoulders, and legs.
Mental Health Benefits
The potential for equipment manufacturers is significant and expanding. In less than 25 years, there will be more than 71 million 65-year-olds, twice as many as there were in 2000, according to the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. But as senior centers add custom fitness equipment to their indoor gyms and outdoor fitness playgrounds, and senior only fitness clubs, like Club 50, FitWright, and Nifty After Fifty, outfit their facilities with similar equipment – as well as yoga, tai chi and Pilates classes – we’d like to advocate for a multigenerational design approach that accommodates children in fitness settings, so that children and grandparents can exercise together and benefit from each other’s companionship. This isn’t a new idea. In 2012, KaBOOM, a nonprofit organization that builds playgrounds in low-income areas, partnered with the Humana Foundation to build multigenerational playgrounds throughout the country.
Joanna Hughes, a spokeswoman for The Royal Parks, the United Kingdom government agency that manages eight parks in London, summarizes the rationale quite nicely in an article for Governing. “While there are certainly physical health aspects to the playground, it is also there to nurture social and mental health.”
Studies show that time spent with children can help seniors stay mentally alert and engaged, counteract feelings of isolation and depression that can occur with aging, and allow older adults to deepen their bonds with their grandchildren. In areas of high crime and poverty, where grandchildren frequently care for grandchildren, creating the opportunity for shared experiences at fitness centers, gyms, and playgrounds is an added rationale for adopting a multigenerational approach.
Goric has a number of engaging sensory and sound offerings that integrate well in these settings. The Farm Pump, a cast iron, hand-operated water pump that connects to a water line, is a great place to start. One way young children develop a sense of agency and independence is by operating tools on their own, but if they need a little extra muscle and encouragement, older adults can jump in. The Farm Pump pairs well with other sand and water equipment, such as the Archimedes Screw and Water Play System 3, and is a wonderful jumping off point for lessons on sharing, where water comes from, why water is important to our health, and why it is important to conserve— the kind of wisdom that benefits from lived experience.
There has been plenty of research showing that early exposure to music strengthens children’s neural connections and increases their capacity to learn, not just musically, but across disciplines. Goric’s popular Babel Drum is a carefully tuned steel drum that children and their grandparents can play with the hands, taking turns or playing as a duet. Tuned to an 8-note major pentatonic scale, it creates beautiful melodies with remarkable sustain. Another lovely sounding option for public places is a set of musical tiles designed by Alfonso van Leggelo. The Dance Chimes, consisting of nine brass tiles, activated by the pressure of movement ─ walking, skipping, jumping, and dancing ─ is a great way for children and grandparents to try to stomp out a melody, while getting a little exercise, as well.
For designers looking for playground equipment children and seniors can both use, The Rodeo is an excellent option. This double-seater version of the traditional see-saw allows grandparents or other caretakers to sit comfortably with their children, while pushing off the ground to strengthen their quads and lower back. The rubber bumpers provide a pillow-soft landing, making it easy on older knees and ankles.
Children and grandparents both stand to benefit from fitness settings that can be shared. Consider it a modest proposal.