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Exercise parks just for seniors help elderly swap slippers for sneakers

Victoria University research has found that outdoor exercise parks specifically designed for seniors help them better enjoy life, and could lower rates of costly falls common with aging. 

A trial park in Sunshine North proved that exercise on balance beams, ramps, and step-up benches dramatically improved participants’ ‘functional health,’ or their ability to cope with daily activities such as tying their shoes, shopping, gardening, or catching a tram.

Nearly 70 Melbourne residents, aged 60 to 87, took part in the 18-week clinical trials.

Exercise physiologist Dr Myrla Sales, who based her PhD on the research, said that seniors have few exercise options in public spaces in Australia, despite the popularity of these kind of parks in other countries, particularly Asia and Europe.

She suggested exercise parks for seniors be co-located with children’s playgrounds so grandparents could exercise while supervising their grandkids.

Her findings showed participants improved muscle strength, balance, and physical function, which are all risk factors for falls. She said more senior exercise parks could lower incidents of falls among older Australians, which are often accompanied by devastating downward spirals in their health. 

While only 17 per cent of the volunteers in the study had ever exercised regularly before, they all reported feeling better physically and mentally after the trial.

“These people are not from an exercise generation and technology has replaced much of the incidental exercise they once did,” Dr Sales said.

Other barriers that prevented them from previous exercise, especially for women, was their long-held perception that exercise was for men, and their lack of time or access to spaces where they felt comfortable to exercise.

“Some seniors of this generation may play lawn bowls or do physical incidental activities, but that is not the same as systematic, structured exercise that works on their strength, balance, mobility, flexibility, and coordination,” she said.

Dr Sales said participants also reported that they enjoyed the opportunity to socialise in the outdoors, while exercise physiologists (including VU students in training) were on hand to ensure they performed exercises correctly.

Dr Sales is calling on local councils and philanthropic organisations to help build other exercise parks dedicated to seniors around Australia so more people could benefit from her research.

The study, A Novel Exercise Initiative for Seniors to Improve Balance and Physical Function, has been published in the Journal of Aging and Health.

View a YouTube video of participants in action in the Sneakers not Slippers project.

The senior exercise park used in the research was designed by Finnish company Lappset. It is installed at St Bernadette Community Respite House (Villa Maria Catholic Homes). The trial was partially funded by Gandel Philanthropy. 

Dr Myrla Sales in available for comment on +61 432 715 653.

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