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Seniors Navigate Fitness in Their Prime

By Inside Columbia
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Photos by Ava Kitzi

The 5:30 a.m. class at Rho Engine Room has an atmosphere more akin to a club, where people happen to be doing burpees, than a gym. There are colorful strobe lights, loud hip-hop music and an instructor pumping up the class of 25 athletes through their Friday morning workout. It seems like a place 21-year-olds should be on a weekend.

Which makes it a surprising place for 65-year-old Don Corwin to be.

Of course, after years of attending of Missouri quarterback working across from him, he will still get the work done. He knows to be available for a mid-set dad joke to keep spirits high (“I burnt my Hawaiian pizza last night. … I should have put it on aloha setting.”) and to have a hand out for high fives when the work is done.

He fits in with this group at 5:30 a.m. and is glad for it.

“I didn’t tell anybody how old I was,” he says about when he first joined the gym. After a lifetime of being a rugby athlete, cycling instructor and a regular in the weights section of a traditional gym, he says he’s finally found a community that pushes and supports him. “I think what helps you stay motivated in the gym and stay young in the gym is to surround yourself with younger people. Then they look at you as a peer rather than as someone who is the same age as their dad.”

While Corwin attends general population classes at Rho, other gyms in Columbia offer senior-specific classes. CrossFit Fringe holds daily Vitality classes from 10:15-11:15 a.m. Monday- Thursday, while catering movements, time domains and coaching specifically toward aging athletes.

Coach Sam Noordsy says that everything they do in classic CrossFit fashion applies directly to things athletes will do in real life. While they may not be repping out heavy deadlifts anymore, they are still picking up groceries, grandkids and moving furniture. So, while they’re not doing big, flashy workouts every day, it’s keeping athletes successful in their daily lives.

“Nothing lighter as you get older,” Noordsy  says. In addition to applicable movements, the programming keeps athletes moving in different timeframes. While a sprint on a stationary bike might not seem immediately relevant to retiree life, Hutmacher says it activates the same heart rate range and endorphins as a fall would. “All of it is specific to their lives because they’re still alive.”

For the general middle-aged population, Noordsy sells CrossFit as an investment in their health. While they won’t immediately see massive growth, she says, the strength, pliability and endurance they’re building is what keeps them happy in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Strength is the new retirement plan, she says.

“What’s neat is that it is hard to conceptualize what doing this today will mean for you in 30 years. Then, you get to coach Vitality and see it in action,” Noordsy says.

Yin Yoga is on the opposite side of the spectrum, with less intensity. While still similar in many of its practices to more traditional types of yoga, Yin is taken at a much slower pace, holding poses for a longer time, and is meant to support joint health and connective tissue.

Briana Frieda teaches Yin weekly at Wilson’s Fitness in Columbia, along with hot barre. She is passionate about both as part of her own weekly workout routine because of how it complements her life as a middle school orchestra teacher and musician. She knows the strength, balance and poise the two routines help develop have been integral to her wellness, as well as the benefits it can provide to older athletes. Because of its reputation as an easier workout, more people with less gym experience are likelier to give it a go.

“(Barre) draws people in because it is yoga; it is strength; it is flexibility. There are elements of dance; there are elements of yoga, and it is 45 minutes, but it’s a good burn,” Frieda says. “I also like it because it’s a lot more fatiguing than people want to give you credit for.”

In Freida’s Yin classes, every move is adapted to the athletes in the room. If she has a regular in her class with knee problems, she has the freedom to switch out a frog pose for a leaning straddle stretch.

This is part of the beauty of it when it comes to older adults, she says. There’s no routine or specific programming that has to be done week to week.

“The adaptability … means that it is accessible for people who have never worked out a day in their life or people who are strength training all the time,” Freida says.

With a hip surgery 10 years in the past and cognizant of the physical changes aging is bringing on for his body, Corwin knows he is lucky to have found something consistent and fun in Rho that he believes in enough to continue attending. He says it’s helped him find a community in retirement, a group of like-minded people to tailgate with and to motivate him through a tough workout.

“I don’t count birthdays as much anymore; I don’t care to,” Corwin says. “But I’m still excited to go to work every day; I’m excited to go to the gym every day. And as long as I keep that attitude, everything else falls into place.”

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