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Treadmill Walking for Seniors

Stop Holding on and You Will Build Stability

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Updated October 09, 2013

Senior Walker on Treadmill

Senior Walker on Treadmill

A Bello / Getty ©
Lamar Sepulveda on TreadmillAngela Weiss / Getty Images

Many seniors hold onto the treadmill. But being over 60 is all the more reason why you should not hold on (unless for brief heart rate check). An older body is more prone to the damage to posture and joints that holding on can create.

Fear of Losing Balance on Treadmill

An older person doesn’t necessarily hold on for balance. I know a 72-year-old man who grips the machine during inclines. This same man does squats while holding dumbbells in each hand. One woman holds on firmly, then gets off the machine and attempts to stand on one foot as a balancing drill! Little does she know that holding on negates this. Fear of losing balance on the tread is based on emotion and lack of knowledge, not physical disability, since these are able-bodied people.

New Senior Treadmill Users

These senior men and women get around the gym fine without any assistance, and even do leg lifts of 90 pounds or leg presses of 120, but then hang onto the treadmill. For some older people, confronting a treadmill for the first time can be intimidating, since it’s a big, noisy machine. The new user thus clings on.

Granted, you may not be able to run anymore, and perhaps your gait is a bit stiff, but if you walked into the gym without a cane, there’s no medical need for gripping the treadmill. One purpose of exercise is to make your body more efficient in day-to-day operations. Holding on creates an artificial environment for your body, since there is nothing to hold onto once you leave the gym!

Holding Onto the Treadmill Lessens Confidence

The more you hold on, the less confident you’ll be at the idea of letting go. A chronic treadmill-gripper’s body has adapted to a type of ambulation that contradicts the way Nature intended the body to move. The gripper’s body becomes less adept at balance and coordination, and muscles that are normally used in walking are cheated out of work. Even if you do a lot of walking off the treadmill, just three, 30-minute gripping sessions per week will fight against all your regular walking. At a minimum, it’s a waste of your valuable time.

Hip Replacement is No Reason to Hold Onto Treadmill

Even people with hip replacements need to keep their hands off the machine. That new hip must learn how to become an integral part of your body’s natural walking mechanism. Hence, you must walk the way you would in real life: no holding on! Wherever you walk in your daily living, you aren’t holding onto anything. You can’t prepare your hip for reality by clinging to the machine. (Again, this article pertains to people who do not need assistance walking in everyday life.)

Successful Seniors Walk Hands-Free on the Treadmill

I once told a woman in her 60s to let go. She complied and became taller and straighter. Within five minutes, she was walking like a soldier, even using an incline. She never reverted to holding on ever again. I’ve instructed numerous people 60-plus to let go. In every case, their gait improved. Not one of them ever teetered.

One of my clients was 65 years old, weighed 220, had aching knees, a stiff gait, and her legs were slightly bowed. During her first session, she held on. I told her to let go. I never say, “Hold on if you feel wobbly!” To do so would taint the person’s confidence. Of course you’ll feel unsteady if you release your hands, since you’re so used to holding on. But holding on de-stimulates your neuro-muscular system. Hands on creates a maintenance state for your body, never a progressive state in which it gets better and better. The minute you hold on, your body recognizes this as something that’s pretty easy. But when you let go and make your legs, hips and core muscles work, your body detects a true challenge. It responds by becoming stronger!

Several months later, my client’s stride was as smooth as a teenager’s, and her legs were no longer bowed. Her knees no longer ached and she went on hikes with younger people. This would have never happened had I been a “nice” trainer and patronized her with, “Now be sure to hold on for balance.”

Problems with Holding Onto the Treadmill

Holding on causes crooked or slumped posture, which can aggravate the degenerative changes in the spine that come with age. Grasping the treadmill does nothing to improve your motion in the real world. Holding on makes walking so effortless, that your body will not improve, because there’s nothing challenging enough to adapt to!

Learning to Let Go on the Treadmill

So how, then, do you transition from holding on to letting go? By making the decision to. The seniors I’ve worked with were able to do it immediately at either a slower pace, or—believe it or not—the same pace they were hanging on at! Looks like age isn’t the issue here; it’s the pitfall of underestimating yourself!

Next: How to Kick the Treadmill-Gripping Habit

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