Older and Stronger
A personal trainer helps clients—including some in their 90s—reach their full potential
After a woman in her 60s had surgery to remove a cyst next to her spinal cord that had paralyzed her from the neck down, she progressed from a wheelchair to walking with two canes with the help of physical therapy. When she was discharged from PT, she wasn’t at the level of function she needed to be.
“Her job required her to travel all over the world and give talks, and she couldn’t get on and off the plane, put the luggage up, walk up stairs with a suitcase,” says Peter Francis, owner of RenewMe Fitness, a Montgomery County business that provides in-home personal training for people 50 and older. He worked with the woman on improving her gait and balance, sometimes loading a suitcase with 40 pounds of weights so she could practice carrying it on stairs. More than a year and a half after surgery, the woman was going on long jogs.
Francis says many of his clients are deemed “functional” by a physical therapist when they really aren’t, partly because of limited insurance coverage. He and his staff of nine trainers help clients move around their homes better and practice techniques for tasks such as filling a dog bowl or carrying groceries.
Francis, 28, who lives in North Bethesda, thought he wanted a career as a physical therapist working with high-level athletes. He’d played lacrosse and football at Rockville High School, and club lacrosse at Salisbury University in Maryland, and had gone through a few rounds of PT after injuries. While majoring in exercise science in college, Francis showed up on the first day of an internship and his client was a woman in her 80s. What am I supposed to do with her? he thought. She can’t do anything. He coached her on some exercises and she fixed her form. As he worked with a mix of people, he felt he was having a bigger impact on older patients than on athletes.
After college, Francis worked as a PT aide and decided he wanted to do more to help patients reach their full potential. So he got certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the Functional Aging Institute and started RenewMe Fitness in 2016. “We see stroke, Parkinson’s, MS, joint replacements, 90-plus-year-olds—our oldest is 103,” he says.
RenewMe also offers training for small groups in rented space at 202 Strong in Rockville. Francis’ own parents signed up, and the workouts have made it easier for his mother to garden and play on the ground with his 19-month-old son.
When Francis was in third grade, his grandfather, who had Parkinson’s disease, died of pneumonia. “I see these elderly clients, especially with Parkinson’s, and I imagine them as my grandparents,” he says. “All of a sudden they’ve got this debilitating disease that is decreasing their function and decreasing their quality of life, and I just want to do everything I can to improve their quality of life so they can enjoy their families and the things that they love doing.”
In His Own Words…
Fun and Games
“We sometimes dance with people because that’s side-to-side moving, it’s forward moving and backwards moving, and changing direction—and we can mask it by dancing, but it’s really good exercise for them in a really structured way. We play games, like passing or tapping a balloon. We can be walking down the hallway behind them and then they have to turn and take a ball from the right, pass it to us on the left—they’re still walking, but their eyes are moving and not really fixed on one thing.”
In Real Life
“A physical therapy clinic is a very safe setting—clear floors, single-level things, the steps are clean and have little grippies, and there’s a very sturdy railing on both sides that [clients] can hold onto. Whereas in a client’s home, there might be carpeting, the stairs might be a little higher or shorter, a little less deep, or their stairs may curve. A lot of people have clutter all over their homes. We can see their home, and train and condition their bodies to tolerate their home, theirdriveway, their garage.”
“Over the span of nine months, [one of our trainers helped] put 15 pounds of muscle on a 94-year-old woman with dementia who could barely walk down the hall with a walker. Now [she is] able to walk across the cobblestone walkways that are around her whole building, without any assistive devices. The family was like, ‘This is amazing.’ ”
Never Too Old
“We’ve gotten three clients [out] of hospice. It’s pretty amazing the benefits of exercise, no matter how old you are. There’s not enough personal trainers out there that want to train this less functioning or less able population. No one wants to look at Instagram pictures of an 85-year-old woman. They don’t care that you can pick up a 10-pound ball off the ground and walk across the room and put it back down. We’re trying to let people know that we shouldn’t forget about this population, and we shouldn’t write them off because they’re in a walker and a wheelchair.”
Walking Isn’t Enough
People say, ‘Oh, I exercise, I walk every day.’ That is not going to help you get up and down off the chair, in or out of bed, or in or out of a car. By doing compound movements with resistance—moving more than one joint at the same time—you can improve function. If you’re sitting and doing a knee extension, you’re only moving one joint, but if you’re to hold a weight and squat down, your ankle joint is moving, your knee joint is moving, your hip joint is moving. You have to stabilize your core, you have to use your glutes, your hamstrings, your quads, your balance in your feet.”