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How to get your parents to exercise

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When I walked into parents apartment, she was sitting on the sofa with a bag of ice on her arm. She stopped me dead in my tracks, and said, “Aren’t you going to feel sorry for me?” I quickly tried to process the situation in front of me. She proceeded to tell me that she was trying to hang up her blouse and could barely reattach the hanger onto the closet rod. Now she was nursing her sore arm muscles. That simple task wore her out. I was speechless. My parent was no longer doing tasks that require exercise.

Right before my eyes I was witnessing the fact that Mom was doing fewer and fewer everyday tasks that require exercise. No more walking to the mailbox. Lifting the carton of milk. Putting clothes in the washing machine. Taking fewer showers. She was slowly becoming helpless. And she was expecting me to pick up the slack.

What I said to Mom after she told me about her blouse-hanging incident changed her life. I sat down next to her, looked her straight in the eye, and said calmly, “Tomorrow morning, I am going to the gym to walk on the treadmill. You are invited to join me. I realize that you have never been to a gym before, and you have never been on a treadmill in all your 86 years. But I will be by your side to help you get your life back. If you like, call me when you wake up tomorrow morning and we’ll go to the gym.” Then I walked out of the room.

Sure enough, the next day she called, and off we went. That was six years and 30 excessive pounds ago. With the help of the treadmill and 2-pound hand-weights, she’s now steady on her feet and back to completing everyday tasks by herself.

Here’s the big however… if I do not go to the gym, either because I am out of town or taking the day off, she does not work out at all. And that’s just the way it is. The deal we have between us is simple: she calls me when she wakes up and is dressed and ready to go to the gym. If she does not call me, I do not call her. I go to the gym alone. I make no mention of not going to the gym throughout the day. She knows that she is making a choice. The extent of my commitment is to work out with her, and that is as far as I can realistically (and respectfully) take it.

How do you get your parents to exercise, or at least lead a healthier lifestyle? You can’t. You also make matters worse by employing a patronizing (and condescending) tone of voice accompanied by the words, “I’m worried about you.” They are your parents, not your children.

What works is to help parents connect the dots between independence and working out. One way to accomplish this is by NOT offering to do simple tasks for them. For example, when Mom says that she wants a glass of water, she must get off that sofa and get the water herself. It’s gotten to the point where now she is the one who tells me that getting up and moving around is a good thing.

Bottom line, I can no more talk about healthy lifestyles with my Mom, including all the benefits that come with the territory, unless I am leading by example. When Mom first moved in, she would prepare large meals for lunch and supper. Now, she follows my routine of having salad only for dinner and saving the main meal for noon-time. She told me that she feels better and sleeps better.

The whole family is in on helping Mom get fit. Her grandchildren invite her to go for a walk to the park or they take her to the mall so she can walk around with them. My sisters take her to the grocery store and she walks through the market for hours and does her own shopping. Invitations are hard to turn down from people who love you and want to be with you.

Sadly, there are many times when my Mom chooses not to work out. She gets into a slump – sometimes for weeks at a time — and she physically goes downhill quickly. She tells me that she knows the consequence of not working out, and I have no choice but to be supportive of her decisions, not critical. It’s not about me.

During times like these, I remind myself to enjoy the time I have left with her.

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Joy Loverde is the author of the best-seller, The Complete Eldercare Planner (Random House, 2009) and Who Will Take Care Of Me When I Am Old? (Da Capo, 2017). Joy’s media credits include the Today Show, CBS Early Show, CNN, and National Public Radio among many others. Joy also serves as a mature-market consultant and spokesperson for manufacturers, corporations, law firms, financial institutions, insurance, associations, healthcare organizations, senior housing, and other members of the fast-growing eldercare industry.

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