Lien Foundation spending over $2m on gym machines for seniors

Mr Tan Cheng Hong may be 77 years old, but his exercise regime can put younger men to shame.

He does 20kg of weights on a leg-press machine and another 10kg to work out his chest muscles.

For a senior citizen who used to hesitate to go to the toilet because his arthritic knees may give way any time, his transformation is stark.

Lien Foundation believes that more elderly folk, like Mr Tan, should enjoy the health benefits that come with physical exertion.

It is partnering Finnish university Kokkola University to see how exercise can be tailored for the elderly to improve their physical and mental health.

Gyms for the elderly are the norm in eldercare centres in Finland, unlike the case here.

At a cost of $2.2 million, the philanthropic foundation is bringing in pneumatic gym equipment for 2,000 senior citizens in six nursing homes and six eldercare centres from next month.

These machines work on an air pressure system that is gentler on the elderly users' muscles and joints. Data on their exercise performance is captured and tracked with an IT system connected to the machines so that their next set of exercises can be tweaked to suit their needs and progress.

"Many of the residents in nursing homes are there because they are frail and not sick," said chief executive of Lien Foundation Lee Poh Wah.

"Why are we confining so many of them to wheelchairs instead of exercise machines? If you are on a wheelchair for a very long time, your physical strength deteriorates very rapidly," he added.

Exercise therapist Andrew Yeo from Peacehaven nursing home said physical inactivity is a big problem among senior citizens.

"The frail elderly are often caught in the vicious circle of inactivity where, because they are afraid of falling, they don't try to exercise and this in turn makes them weaker to the point of being bed-bound," he said.

Physical inactivity is the fourth-biggest factor contributing to deaths globally, according to the World Health Organisation.

Studies done in Finland using similar pneumatic gym equipment found improvements in the walking speed of patients with multiple sclerosis, as well as the sugar levels of diabetic patients.

A small three-month pilot done in Peacehaven last year, which compared the health of 15 residents after they used the machines with that of another 11 who did not, showed favourable results.

Residents who did the exercises had fewer depressive symptoms, reduced blood pressure and greater muscle strength.

"The machines improve the image of ageing and give them back their dignity," said Sister Geraldine Tan of St Joseph's Home, a nursing home for the aged. "Instead of having improvised exercises or improvised equipment, now they are getting almost the real stuff, like in gyms such as California Fitness."

jantai@sph.com.sg