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Cross-Training: Complete Fitness for Seniors

by Rich O’Boyle, Publisher
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Most athletes tend to pick a sport or exercise routine that they excel at or enjoy and then stick with it – training year after year to improve their skills and ability. But many fitness experts recommend “cross-training,” participating in more than one sport or activity to get the most out of their routine and to relieve boredom. For seniors, this advice may be doubly wise as cross-training can help minimize injuries and enhance well-being by creating a more well-rounded exercise regime.

According to Bryant Stamford, Ph.D., director of the Health Promotion and Wellness Center and professor of exercise physiology in the School of Education at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in cross-training, two or more types of exercise are performed in one workout or used alternately in successive workouts. A distance runner in training, for example, may also lift weights twice a week, perform daily stretching exercises, and do high-intensity bicycle sprints weekly.

According to Dr. Stamford, cross-training helps you:

  • Add variety to your workouts to keep you interested. You can use traditional training methods like running and swimming as well as exercise on various machines or in stretching programs such as yoga,
  • Develop your entire body, rather than specific parts or energy systems (aerobic vs. anaerobic),
  • Distribute the load of training among various body parts, thus reducing the risk of injury, and
  • Keep training while you are injured. When one body part is injured, you can train using different muscles and joints.

Not all experts agree on the merits of cross-training. Some trainers encourage serious athletes to focus single-mindedly on the specific exercises that will improve their desired sport. For example, distance runners should run long distances, and weight lifters should only lift weights. Cross-training can be a distraction for the seriously focused athlete.

But since most seniors exercise for the general benefits of improved fitness, muscularity, flexibility, endurance, balance, and appearance, they can benefit greatly from cross-training.

Injury Prevention

All athletes, whether weekend warriors or professional sportsmen, experience some type of strain or injury at one time or another. Seniors should be aware of their physical and skill limitations when beginning an exercise program, and gradually build the frequency and complexity of their programs after learning the basics from qualified instructors.

“As you go forward, keep in mind that seniors have to tone things down a bit. So unless advice is directed specifically to seniors, remind yourself to moderate the training in accordance with your age,” recommends Logan Franklin, a 65 year-old exercise enthusiast and publisher of the website Gray Iron Fitness (http://www.grayironfitness.com). “Seniors expecting to make progress may have to adjust the content and, most certainly, the volume and intensity of their workouts [as compared to routines intended for professional athletes or twenty year olds],” Franklin adds.

The most common types of injuries in seniors are “overuse injuries” compounded by arthritis. “The key to keeping older patients active is to enable them to work out as painlessly as possible,” says Warren A. Scott, M.D., chief of sports medicine at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, California. Even seniors with arthritis can exercise if they maintain a program of muscle stretching and muscle conditioning. “The additive effect of aerobic conditioning, muscle strengthening, and stretching can reduce the chance of injury,” he notes.

If you do find yourself injured in the course of your regular workout routine, seek medical attention and adhere to any rehabilitation program devised by your medical provider. Dr. Scott says, “I generally recommend cross-training activities during rehabilitation to maintain aerobic conditioning and muscle strength while the patient heals: walking, bicycling, swimming, water and traditional aerobics, cross-country skiing, and strength training.”

Cross-Training Programs

Seniors can develop customized routines that fit within their abilities and interests. Cross-trainers ideally integrate aerobic exercises (such as swimming, jogging, or biking), anaerobic exercises (such as weight training), and flexibility exercises (such as yoga or tai chi) in the course of a day’s exercise.

The specific exercises and sports that a senior engages in should be determined by his/her interests, as well as restrictions due to safety concerns [avoid biking in a crowded city] or age-related disabilities [limit high-impact and stress-causing sports like tennis if you have painful joints], Dr. Scott adds.

Some of the most effective strength and fitness programs combine weight training with cardiovascular exercise. It doesn't matter if you're a world class athlete or the average guy or gal. Weights and cardio are the premier formula for optimum fitness. Add healthy eating and proper rest and you've got the complete package,” says Gray Iron Fitness’ Franklin.

Dr. Stamford offers a sample cross-training program for all-around conditioning. “It can help boost aerobic fitness, muscle strength, muscle endurance, and flexibility, and also assist in weight control by helping you burn a fair number of calories each day,” he says. Dr. Stamford advises that you consult a medical professional before starting this or any exercise program.

Note: This sample program requires a daily commitment of up to one hour total exercise time.

Day 1

Brisk walking with hand weights
Upper Body Weight Training

Day 2

Lower Body Weight Training

Day 3


Day 4

Bicycling, rowing, or cross-country skiing

Day 5

Brisk Walking
Upper Body Weight Training or Circuit Weight Training

Day 6

Jogging at a varied pace

Day 7

Day of Rest or
Walking comfortably


 - “Treating Injuries in Active Seniors,” by Warren A. Scott, M.D., The Physician and Sports Medicine, Vol 24, No 5, May 1996 http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1996/05_96/scott.htm

 - “Cross Training: Giving Yourself a Whole Body Workout” by Bryant Stamford, Ph.D., The Physician and Sports Medicine, Vol 24, No 9, September 1996 http://www.physsportsmed.com/issues/1996/09_96/cross.htm

 - Gray Iron Fitness http://www.grayironfitnmess.com


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