Fitness professionals help seniors turn the tide on aging

Fitness professionals help seniors turn the tide on aging


As Taiwan’s demographic changes, older adults have become a major driving force of the fitness industry. But senior clients have unique physical limitations, and their progress may be slower compared to younger adults. To meet the needs of this group, fitness trainers need specialized training. Today in our Sunday special report, we meet certified professionals who guide seniors toward healthier and more vibrant lives.

Despite the rain, these students have gathered right on time for their 10 a.m. muscle conditioning class.

Look close and you’ll see they’re not your usual gym buffs. Many are silver-haired retirees. The average age of the class is 75.

Seniors today are more eager than ever before to take classes to stay fit. But effective instruction requires specialized knowledge.

Wan Tzu
Fitness instructor
I studied physical education in school, but I wasn’t an athlete myself. I focused on the theoretical side. In Taiwan, there are quite a few courses for senior fitness trainers, but they don’t all provide certification.

By law, fitness trainers for the elderly aren’t required to hold certification. But certification is still the main way of assessing a trainer’s abilities.

Cheng Ching-chieh
Fitness center owner
When we’re looking to hire a trainer, we look for three things. The first is at least three years of coaching experience. The second is certification as a senior fitness specialist. The third is actual experience teaching seniors.

In Taiwan, there are two types of certification for senior fitness specialists: national and private. National certification is issued by the Sports Administration. It’s been available since 2013, but is notoriously hard to pass. To date, fewer than 1,500 people have obtained it. In comparison, private certifications are more accessible and varied, with at least 10 organizations offering them.

One of them is the Health & Exercise Association ROC. It runs a two-day certification workshop for senior fitness specialists.

The final exam is two hours long, covering both theoretical and practical components. Today one of the proctors is Ruby, a trainer herself. She says the test doesn’t just assess professional expertise. It also factors in interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate effectively.

Senior fitness trainer
First off, how you address the students is very important. Never ever call them Uncle or Aunty. Call them Brother or Sister. After that, you’ve got your small talk: “Have you eaten?” and “How’d you sleep last night?” You have to engage with them. After that, you’ve got to play music, music that old people like. That’s a handy trick of the trade.

As more seniors take up exercise, courses for trainers are on the rise. Certified trainers enjoy a strong career outlook.

She wraps up warm and grabs her microphone. Then she’s off on her scooter, zipping through the streets and alleys.

Thirty-four-year-old Wang Ting-yuan is a traveling fitness instructor for the Taipei City government. She mainly leads aerobics classes for seniors, focusing on overall physical form.

Wang has been a fitness trainer for 15 years. In order to teach seniors, she obtained multiple qualifications, including one in senior health and wellness. She’s also certified in physical conditioning for special populations.

Wang Ting-yuan
Senior fitness trainer
I think it’s important to understand special populations and the physical conditions they might have. For example, some might have diabetes, and some might have osteoporosis or arthritis. Their bodies might be limited by these real conditions, and trainers need to understand that to a certain degree. Only then can trainers know that their students can’t do certain things. For instance, most people can lift their arms to this height, why can’t they do it? With that understanding, we can provide safer training exercises that fall within their restricted range of movement.

Even with her string of certifications, Wang says that what’s key to teaching seniors is communication and establishing trust.

Wang Ting-yuan
Senior fitness trainer
When I first started out, I was someone who could not speak Taiwanese. Ten years ago when I arrived at the first service location for seniors, I discovered that they would sometimes speak to me in Taiwanese. So when I went home I memorized the Taiwanese terms for various joints in the body. They would correct me, and I found that to be great fun. I said, “I’ll teach you how to exercise, and you can teach me Taiwanese.”

Over the years, Wang has earned trust and won hearts in her senior classes. She’s taken her students on adventures to try standup paddleboarding. To them, she’s like a beloved family member.

Learning with her is great. Teacher Yuan-yuan is just go-go-go throughout the entire class. And she gets along with us so well.

We’ve known Yuan-yuan for about eight years now. She’s like our own child. And she keeps us in good shape. I’m already in my 80s but I’m fit as a fiddle.

But as older adults develop chronic diseases or other medical issues, they become prone to feeling sore after exercise. That soreness can create a reluctance to keep exercising. Instead, students might seek out medication from a doctor.

Wang Ting-yuan
Senior fitness trainer
What we really want to do is create a three-part care pathway, from doctor to physiotherapist to fitness trainer. After injured seniors complete rehabilitation, they will need to start restorative training. At that point the responsibility can then fall on the fitness trainer, who works with the seniors to strengthen muscles and improve physical movements, to help adjust their fitness. I think that this is the way to provide comprehensive care.

Tseng Wen-chih
Chronic disease specialist
Taiwan’s health care system is unique. It makes medication very cheap and accessible, and so many chronic diseases are routinely treated with medication. At first one pill is prescribed, and if it’s not effective, another pill is added. You’ll find that many older adults leave the hospital like they had just gone to the supermarket. There’s a bag of medication in one hand and another bag in the other, altogether containing a dozen types of medication.

Sports medicine physician Tseng Wen-chih specializes in treating chronic diseases. Besides providing the usual clinical care, Tseng can also write “exercise prescriptions” for his patients. He believes that drugs can target diseases, but that only exercise can heal the person.

Tseng Wen-chih
Chronic disease specialist
From conducting these studies, I have found that exercise is effective, that exercise can really be a form of medication. Doctors before us have long known that medications interact with each other. If exercise is a form of medication, then it will also interact with the actual medication. Doctors have to understand the interaction of the two. They can increase the amount of exercise on the one hand, and on the other, reduce the amount of actual medication.

Tseng first asks the patient about his daily routine and medication intake. Then he writes a prescription for exercise, which the patient can take to a partner fitness center.

Trainer at partner gym
Basically, we follow the exercise prescription. Once it’s done, the data is recorded, and Dr. Tseng is consulted about whether adjustments should be made.

Through the power of exercise, seniors can not only improve their health but lighten Taiwan’s medical burden. Senior-focused trainers play a pivotal role in making that happen.

Wang Ting-yuan
Senior fitness trainer
I do feel that this job is quite hard, but through my job I can also help a lot of people. All of us trainers have a sports background. Since we have this specialty, this expertise, why not use it for good in more places, to be a ray of light for more communities in society?

As the senior fitness culture grows, more professional trainers are joining the ranks, providing a way to be active and thrive even in old age.

For more Taiwan news, tune in:
Sun to Fri at 9:30 pm on Channel 152
Tue to Sat at 1 am on Channel 53

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