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Last Updated: Monday, 12 November 2007, 12:02 GMT
Gym and dance for elderly Finns
By Rachael Kiddey
Radio 4's The Age Old Dilemma

Elderly women dancing
Dancing helps to improve co-ordination and balance
The Finnish town of Jyvaskyla has some of the fittest old people in Europe, and you can find many of them at the gym.

A gentleman in his late 70s crawls through a plastic tunnel on his hands and knees and then prepares to roll down a small slope onto a mat.

"He must keep his arms straight above his head as he rolls. This helps strengthen his back muscles," Dr Errki Tervo tells me, as a lady behind him jumps from a bench to a mat, bending her knees as she lands.

"This movement is for balance training. Good balance is important for reducing falls in older people and a small amount of impact, we have found, makes the bones stay stronger."

Dr Errki Tervo is a lecturer in Sports Science at the University of Jyvaskyla.

"We've been conducting research into the physical properties of ageing for over 30 years," Dr Tervo explains.

"Using that research we've designed this gym class specifically for older bodies, to strengthen muscles and keep joints healthy."

Quality of life

Travelling through its modest suburbs, you could be forgiven for thinking that not much happens in Jyvaskyla, a small town in central Finland.

Yet this unassuming place is home to older people who are not only some of the healthiest in Europe, but also the most studied.

I can walk better, my memory works better and I can combine movements better
Dance class participant

Research conducted at the town's university shows that active older people live longer and that regular exercise in your 40s and 50s has a direct impact on your health in later life.

Professor Sarianna Sipila, director of the Department of Gerontology, believes that doctors, physiotherapists, carers and nurses should be trained to teach older people some simple but effective exercises.

These can help them remain mobile and maintain their confidence and appetite for life.

"If you are active you can postpone [severe medical conditions] and even mortality.

"If you are unable to go out of your doors you are totally dependent on other persons' health, whereas if you are able to walk outdoors it gives you so many more choices to live your life."

Subsidies

Ever more people are living long into retirement, but to really enjoy the extra years, Jyvaskyla is trying to ensure all its citizens remain active for as long as possible.

There are 200 fitness classes on offer to the town's older people, all of which are heavily subsidised by the council to make them accessible to everyone.

"This is the ballroom," Pirjo Huovinen tells me, smiling as she opens the door to a basketball court.

A group of 60 older people are warming up for their dance class, chattering and laughing.

"My oldest student is 94," Pirjo tells me as she selects a CD, "but she is still away in her summer house by the lake. She'll be back next week."

At the end of the dance class, I speak with a lady in her late 80s.

"I feel very warm now. The dancing helps because we exercise our brains and our bodies and we have to put them together.

"I can walk better, my memory works better and I can combine movements better."

She apologises that she has to leave as she and some friends from the class are going for a day out in a nearby town.

The Age Old Dilemma will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Monday 12, 19 and 26 November at 1100 GMT

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