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Work until you drop

By Helen Lobato - posted Monday, 15 February 2010


"Old age ain't no place for sissies," declared Bette Davis, once upon a time. I would have to agree with the first lady of the American screen about the formidable rigors of ageing. This final stage of the human condition is to become even more uncomfortable as the demands for baby boomers to extend their working lives increase.

The mantra alleging that baby boomers are a hefty burden on the younger generation is frequently recited and its purpose is intentional. The country can't afford to keep us in the manner to which we have become accustomed. Our meagre superannuation savings mandate that we work more and play less, with the average superannuation account being about $85,000, and much less for many women, who have taken time away from paid work to care for families.

This latest piece of social engineering has attracted the wit of cartoonist Michael Leunig who depicts the end of retirement with his scrawny, haggard character, tethered scarecrow-like, over the veggies. “It's not a real scarecrow. That's our grandma. We've got her back into the workforce to make use of her considerable talents,” read the caption.

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Craig from Tasmania, in a letter to The Age, wrote that he's a 55-year-old with no job prospects. As he doesn't want to be a burden on society, he suggests that euthanasia could be a solution. But even here his option is thwarted, and while we wait for the euthanasia legislation to catch up with the fiscal realities of an ageing society, what are we older baby boomers supposed to do but keep healthy and work.

Many older Australians do not have access to bountiful super funds and face the work challenge for another five to ten years. Ray is a critical care nurse who finding himself in this situation, knows he has little choice but to continually work at keeping mentally and physically active. "In my job I need a lot of stamina," states the trim 64-year-old nurse who attends his local fitness centre three times a week. "Regular weight training maintains my strength so I can keep up with the demands of an increasingly stressful workplace."

Rick Taranto knows well the benefits of regular exercise and fitness for the over 50s. The 58-year-old is a gym instructor and personal trainer at Fitness in Sussex, situated in the northern Melbourne suburb of Pascoe Vale. "Most people think that gym is just for weight lifting or weight loss, but there's another important element that's to do with your inner health, such as the benefits of weight training for blood pressure and blood sugar control." Taranto stresses that gym work regulates these vital bodily functions, and keeps us healthy longer into our senior years. The long-time gym enthusiast practices what he preaches and while the rest of us soak up the sun, wine and dine, and otherwise amuse ourselves, on weekends he will be working out, anxious to maintain the fitness that was eagerly sought, and diligently acquired over the last 40 years, while being involved in the health and fitness industry.

"Interestingly, the growth in the industry is in the under 18s and the over 50s" Taranto says. The fitness centre of the 21st century is a modern day health club vastly different to the gymnasiums of the 1950s where lifting weights was regarded as rather odd behaviour. Equipped with just a few basics such as a lat pull-down, a leg extension device, a vertical leg press, and maybe a couple of basic wall pulley arrangements, gyms were primarily the terrain of muscle-bound bodybuilders. Gyms of today's world are part of a multi-billion dollar industry embraced by a demographic, spanning teens to seniors who are chasing fitness, weight-loss, and the odd tip on nutrition and stress-reduction.

When you sign up as a member of the gym you are encouraged to work out at least three times a week commencing each session with an aerobic exercise such as the treadmill or the stationary bike. This aerobic activity promotes efficient oxygen usage in the muscles and improves the function of vital organs such as the heart and lungs. Once the body is well oxygenated it's time for the strength or resistance training, whereby lifting with appropriate weights, muscles are strengthened, reducing the risk of injuries, a common hazard for the elderly.

For the ageing among us, weight training and exercise in general have the added bonus of stimulating brain function; a welcome change from the endless crosswords dutifully completed as we seek to prevent the dreaded dementia.

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I've just turned 60 and three times a week doggedly, yet reservedly, I too make my way to the local gym; smelly sneakers afoot and water bottle in hand. At the gym I meet Colleen, an indomitable 80-year-old and a fine example of the benefits of exercise and resistance training, having recently undergone a successful shoulder replacement. "I try to get here three times a week, love," says Colleen, in between her restorative breaths. "I've been coming here for over 30 years and hope to be here for a few more. I'm still fit and healthy and I'm sure it's the gym work."

As I work out, I cast my eye in the direction of a middle-aged, rather obese man who is sweating it out on the bike. I become concerned when suddenly he clutches his chest. Little beads of perspiration are forming all over his balding head and dripping down onto his ample cheeks. Although he is rapidly losing colour from his face he shows no sign of stopping. For that matter, neither do the baby boomers as they struggle to earn enough money to provide for their aged future. “Work until you drop” takes on a whole new reality in 2010. One where euthanasia may not be needed after all!

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About the Author

Helen Lobato is an independent health researcher and radio broadcaster with community radio 3cr and at present is a co-producer of Food fight, a weekly program around food security issues. Helen has a background in critical care nursing.

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