If you were to go online and search for images of GYROKINESIS® and GYROTONIC® training it would be understandable if your impression was that this is a class for dancers and experienced yogis, and maybe not so much for an older person with perhaps an achy hip and osteoporosis. Due to a desire to impress on social media, or maybe just a healthy exuberance for the movement, GYROKINESIS® and GYROTONIC® trainers may have inadvertently done a disservice to a population whom the work might help the most.
Older adults, which is admittedly a somewhat broad term given that we all age at different rates and in different ways, stand to benefit greatly from regular participation in GYROKINESIS® classes and/or GYROTONIC® sessions. This movement approach addresses the most common fitness issues people face with aging.
First, it’s helpful to understand the difference between GYROKINESIS® and GYROTONIC® training. While both work with the same concepts and movement patterning, the GYROKINESIS® work is done without equipment and therefore lends itself well to a group class format, while the GYROTONIC® work utilizes specially designed, substantial equipment, so is generally more often done in private sessions, “duets” with two participants, or in fairly small groups.
For our purposes here we’ll focus on the GYROKINESIS® group classes, since these will be more accessible to a wider range of clients in different financial situations, and because fitness clubs, senior centers, and other organizations wanting to provide wellness opportunities for seniors can easily serve more people through group classes. Of course, if private GYROTONIC® sessions are available and are a financially accessible option for an individual, these sessions would be highly beneficial.
Let’s look point by point at how GYROKINESIS® classes can help older adults maintain or regain fitness and vitality throughout aging, whether the participant has been a life long athlete or fitness enthusiast, or simply desires to get about daily functional activities with more ease and comfort.
Mobility. In a GYROKINESIS® class we generally begin seated on a stool and move through a series of rhythmic mobilizations for the spine in all directions, which include extension and flexion, sideways, and in rotation, or “spiral” as we prefer to say. We can then intentionally and gradually combine these movements to create more complex spinal mobilizations. The seated position on the stool gives us the stability to begin to mobilize through the hips and shoulders.
Decompression. Many people, especially as we age, may have concerns about certain ranges of motion, such as flexion in the case of osteoporosis, extension in the case of spinal stenosis, or just about any direction in cases of back pain. But in the GYROTONIC® approach we first teach a simple method of creating length and decompression through the spine, and then throughout the body, that can allow for a greater range of motion with much less risk of injury. This decompression allows for more movement without discomfort. Often the daily aches and pains we have come from some type of compression in the body, such as a shoulder joint or a hip that “grinds” with movement, or vertebrae that sink into each other. By learning how to create length and decompression in or movement we’re able to find more ease, freedom, and comfort. An experienced trainer can assist the participant in finding the appropriate range of motion within the decompressed state in order navigate any movement contraindications there may be.
Balance. Balance is a major concern in aging. Fear of a fall may begin to limit favorite activities and an actual fall can have serious consequences. After we’ve mobilized the spine, hips and shoulders on the stool we then generally do some standing work. The standing work mobilizes the hips, knees, ankles, and feet, all of which need a good deal of suppleness to maintain balance in daily activities, as well as in any sporting activities. Often a class tailored for an older population will include some simple “balancing steps”, which is basically stepping side to side and finding balance. Specific techniques are taught to use the reaching of the foot against the floor to find ease and strength in the balance through the use of oppositional forces. It may sound complicated, but there are simple images given in class that have significant effects on the quality and effectiveness of an individual’s movement.
Gait. Gait changes are also a concern with aging. As people lose mobility through the spine they lose the oppositional swing of the leg and arm that occur with the gentle spiraling action of the spine that is present in a healthy walking pattern. Also, with a decrease in foot and ankle mobility the individual loses the ability to roll through the foot with each step and begins to move in more of a side to side action, resulting in that shuffle that you can probably picture one of your elderly grandparents having done. But the side shuffle is not an inescapable fate. We can maintain or regain the mobility that allows for healthy gait patterning through the GYROKINESIS® work. A class might often include specific foot and ankle exercises to mobilize and bring awareness to the area. These exercises can also easily be done daily at home, so that the participant is able to work more consistently on this important mobility.
Posture. What in our youth might have been slightly bad postural habits can solidify over the years and can severely undermine the proper mechanics of the body’s movement patterning. This can make us vulnerable to injury. Also, catching a glimpse of oneself in the mirror with terrible posture can make a person feel old and can diminish self confidence in one’s ability to move in an active and healthy way. Improving posture not only can be protective against injury or discomfort, but can also help us to think of ourselves as fit, active, and healthy people. And generally, if we feel fit and active we’re more likely to act as fit and active people.
Strength. The loss of strength with aging is a process we all need to work to protect against. And while the GYROKINESIS® work doesn’t include resistance training, which should be incorporated into a weekly fitness routine, it is indeed strengthening. We are working the core muscles and creating some basic strengthening through the arms and legs as well. Participation in regular GYROKINESIS® classes will strengthen the muscle that support the spine, and that help stabilize the shoulder girdle. There is also strengthening in the muscles that support the hips and pelvis, which will improve balance and posture. If it’s possible to pursue private or small group training on the Gyrotonic equipment this would be a good way to incorporate resistance work.
Cardiovascular. A typical GYROKINESIS® class moves through a continuous rhythmic flow from one series of movements into the next. This provides a gentle cardiovascular stimulation that isn’t overly strenuous. Of course, the work is easily tailored to the specific group, so the level of cardiovascular stimulation can be adjusted from minimal to fairly intense, depending on what’s appropriate for the participants. This is not only beneficial for the heart, but also gets the blood flowing through the body, improving circulation throughout.
Breath function. In many fitness programs often little attention is given to the breath, beyond cues to inhale or exhale at specific times. In GYROKINESIS® classes we layer in easy to follow breath patterns, with an emphasis on specific qualities of the breathing. This helps to bring the participant’s breathing into more healthy patterning. Why is this important? Improper breathing can undermine the function of the shoulder girdle, pelvic floor, and core muscles. Very often it is unhealthy breath patterning that is at the root of shoulder, neck, and back pain, as well as poor posture and pelvic floor issues. As proper breathing is restored participants often find some relief from these issues, as well as an increased range of motion as more movement opens up between the ribs and in the diaphragm. The rib cage can then sit in better alignment over the pelvis, which supports better movement function throughout the body.
Urinary continence. Urinary incontinence is an issue few like to talk about, but many suffer with quietly. The GYROKINESIS® work can help create better strength and suppleness of the pelvic floor through the utilization of proper breathing and deep core strengthening exercises. Participants will gain a greater awareness of these areas, therefore gaining better control.
Cognitive function. Last but far from least is maintenance and improvement of cognitive function. The movement patterns performed in the class are accessible, but challenging enough that a certain level of concentration and focus must be applied. There has been more and more research being presented that shows performing mental tasks, such as remembering a sequence of movements, while moving the body is more effective for improving and maintaining our cognitive abilities than simply sitting and working on brain games or crossword puzzles. It’s becoming clear that movement plays a key role in maintaining good cognitive function as we age, and that any well rounded program for senior health needs to include a great deal of movement.
It would be wonderful to see GYROKINESIS® classes as a standard offering in health clubs, senior centers, and retirement homes. We all age differently, but through the GYROKINESIS® and Gyrotonic systems we can live our best, healthiest lives and maintain a joy of activity and movement throughout our later years.