June 2009 Issue

Boomers on the Go
By Lindsey Getz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 6 P. 20
Forget the stereotypes. Today’s boomers are more active than past generations, and it’s important to remember that when working with some of your older clients. While it used to be that those in their 50s or 60s were expected to “slow down,” maybe take life a little easier, that couldn’t be less the case today. Many nearing retirement or already retired are on the go. They’re staying physically fit and maybe even participating in more activities than they did earlier in life. And they are not only invested in their health but are also more health educated than generations past.

The youngest boomers are now 45 and the oldest are 63—an age when many are not only parents but also grandparents. But the old belief that grandma and grandpa are ready for a rocking chair couldn’t be further from the truth, argues Mary Lloyd, author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote and Do What You Love. “We’re living longer, so we’re younger at the point that was once considered ‘old,’” says Lloyd. “Our bodies can do more, too. The idea that you’re unable to do things after you hit your 60s is just silly nowadays, and people have a choice as individuals whether they’re going to buy into that or not. I say don’t!”

Staying Active, Staying Healthy
One reason that boomers are so active is that they have more time, says Lloyd. And they’re filling that time when they used to be working with recreational activities. “As boomers throttle back on their careers and move into the retirement phase of their life, they simply have more time to do what they love and maybe a chance to discover new things.”

Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, president of Nutrition for the Future, Inc, says another reason boomers may be so active today is that it is a generation that grew up with exercise. Generations past did not focus as much on the importance of staying physically fit not only for appearance but also for health. “We were weaned on Jack LaLanne TV ads, kicked into shape by Jane Fonda videos, and came to believe that a gym membership was a necessity, not a luxury,” says Hayes, who adds, “I am a boomer babe myself!”

Hayes also says this age group has been “adventure-seeking” since they were young, and it’s not something they’re readily willing to give up. “We expect travel to be more than one long cruise buffet,” she says. “We want to go mountain biking, heli-skiing, or zipping between the trees!”

And staying active means being able to do more, emphasizes Elizabeth DeRobertis, MS, RD, CDN, CDE, of the Scarsdale Medical Group in New York. “Many of the baby boomers I see are active because they have stayed active,” she says. “I think that people are putting in that extra effort to take care of themselves and are reaping the benefits by feeling and acting 10 years younger. Exercise is so important to be able to continue to do your daily activities with ease. An intentional walk for exercise in the morning actually helps you to be able to carry that laundry up the stairs because you are helping your bones and muscles stay in shape.”

As far as how to stay active, Lloyd doesn’t believe there should be limitations on what boomers should do—as long as their body can handle it, they should do what they love. “Of course, there may be some activities that your kids ask you not to do, such as skydiving,” she laughs. “But don’t ever feel like you have to pay attention to a number, an age, to tell you when you have to stop doing something. Instead, just pay attention to your body and what it’s physically able to do.”

But Lloyd also says that just because one’s body isn’t “up” to a particular challenge doesn’t mean it should be an excuse to forget about it entirely. “If you want to go hiking but are 25 pounds overweight, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go hiking; it means you should lose the weight,” she notes.

RDs to the Rescue
For all of the boomers who are active and have remained so throughout their lives, there are also those who are not. RDs are in prime position to encourage these individuals to get out there and get moving.

Weight loss is an area where dietitians can certainly help their boomer clients. “Many of my baby boomer clients are struggling with weight gain that has happened over years of unhealthy habits,” says Julie Taube, MS, RD, LD, an American College of Sports Medicine health fitness instructor with Sheryl Westerman Weight Loss Motivation & Nutrition Counseling in Atlanta. “The old ‘diet tricks’ don’t work anymore, and they are frustrated. Even despite their health knowledge, many are overweight and at risk for multiple diseases due to these unhealthy choices. They drink too much alcohol, do not exercise often enough, and eat diets high in saturated fat and low in fruits and vegetables.”

While you shouldn’t use your clients’ age to form assumptions about how active they are, it is important to keep their age in mind to determine their nutritional needs. “More than any other age group, boomers need to focus on nutrient-rich foods,” says Hayes. “These foods, generally foods that are more whole and less processed, provide lots of nutrient bang for the calorie buck. And nutrient-rich foods are an important key to aging well because as we get older, our bodies need fewer calories but the same, or even greater, amounts of nutrients.”

Calcium is a great example, Hayes says. At the age of 50, the recommended amount of calcium climbs from 1,000 to 1,200 mg, which would equal three to four servings of reduced-fat dairy foods and a significant portion of one’s daily calories as well. Other key nutrients for boomers include B vitamins for the brain and protein, which helps maintain muscle mass and prevent sarcopenia.

“Baby boomers should focus on increasing their intake of high-fiber foods,” adds DeRobertis. “The benefit of this is lower calorie density, which is very helpful for weight management. Focus[ing] on eating healthy foods, such as starting meals with a big salad and trying to fill half the dinner plate with veggies, is a great way to boost fiber while also filling up on the lowest calorie foods. This is not only excellent for weight management but for heart health and cancer prevention.”

Baby boomers should also pay attention to their vitamin D levels, adds Taube. “Vitamin D is needed for calcium absorption, and therefore low vitamin D levels can lead to calcium insufficiency, osteomalacia, and eventual osteoporosis. In addition, today, researchers are even finding that insufficient vitamin D may be related to chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, cancer, or even heart disease. And adults over age 50, especially postmenopausal women, are at a greater risk for vitamin D deficiency because of the body’s reduced ability to synthesize the vitamin from the sun as we age.”

And dietitians shouldn’t be nervous about recommending physical activity to their boomer clients. While it’s always important to advise that they see a physician for a physical exam if they are starting a brand-new routine, dietitians can still be great motivators for boomers who aren’t as active as they should or could be. Besides the fact that exercise has been shown to do everything from improve mood to reduce the risk of dementia and heart disease, there’s also an emotional benefit to it, says Lloyd. “Doing something you really love to do is rewarding,” she says. “Sometimes it brings back memories from when you were a kid, or maybe you’ve discovered something brand new. The exhilaration of learning something new is very energizing.”

So how should inactive boomers get moving? “There are so many options for baby boomers to increase their activity,” says Taube. “A new trend that clients see great results from is cross-training interval workouts. These can be done with a personal trainer or in a group fitness class. The interval workout gets your heart rate up to burn more calories, while the cross-training reduces the strain from one continued exercise like running or biking would cause.”

Other popular boomer activities may include sailing, biking, or tennis. Hayes says she personally enjoys a daily combination of yoga and old-fashioned walking, which she calls “good for the body, brain, and soul.” But she says the best physical activities for boomer bodies include any that incorporate aerobics, strengthening, flexibility, and balance.

Lloyd’s favorite activities include hiking and skiing. She recommends that boomers find a group to get involved with because it helps with motivation and makes it fun, too. It’s also a way for retired boomers to still feel connected socially and even make new friends when they’re no longer surrounded by people in the workplace. “I’m in a ski club that has plenty of older members, and I feel very lucky to have found it,” she says. “They not only ski but hike, bike, and kayak. If you decide you want to do something, find some people to do it with. I love skiing, but it’s not as much fun to go alone.”

Dietitians can recommend that boomers seek out groups on the Internet, though bear in mind that some baby boomers still aren’t big Web users. Lloyd says word of mouth can actually be more effective sometimes. Asking around can go a long way. Or stop into a local sports shop and see whether it has any organized activities. Lloyd says her local REI store (an outdoor gear store) holds seminars on many recreational topics. “I did one on hiking and one on snowshoeing and found myself sitting next to people that I could strike up a conversation with,” she says.

You may also recommend that your clients seek out their local parks and recreation department to see whether they have any organized activities. Another option would be encouraging your boomer clients to be the facilitators of their own group. Encourage them to do the organizing if they can’t find the activity or group they’re seeking. Sometimes it takes just a little push to set something in motion. If you’re ambitious—and generous—maybe you’ll take charge of organizing something among clients from your office. Or at least offer to pass on the names of other boomer clients with whom your clients could connect.

Encouragement Is Essential
Perhaps the most important thing that RDs can do is offer their boomer clients some healthy encouragement that they can do it. Notes Lloyd: “The most important thing boomers should know is if they start out with the idea that they can’t do something, then they won’t. Maybe they won’t even try. If your body is truly not in the right shape to do a particular activity, then see what you can do to change that. But don’t just say ‘I can’t’ without even giving it a shot.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer based in Royersford, Pa.