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The phrase “Our perception of our own limitations” can be meaningful to all of us. That is, the phenomenon of perception centers in the mind, independent of how it shows up through our actions or inactions.

Squat to single arm overhead balance press.

The problem of perceived limitation for older adults is the influence on intrinsic capacity.1

Intrinsic capacity is a new concept introduced by the World Health Organization. It is defined as the composite of all physical and mental capacities that an older adult can draw upon during his/her life.2

There are five intrinsic capacities, also known as domains:

  1. Mobility
  2. Cognition
  3. Vitality
  4. Psychosocial
  5. Neurosensorial: Vision, Hearing3

The perceived limitation of physical capability may have a cascading negative effect on the individual’s physical and mental (including psychosocial) capacities and functionality.

How does the problem of perceived limitation arise?

Professional athletes and seniors, surprisingly, have something in common—doing a movement or activity in a cautious or “safe” way due to their perception of limitation—when, in reality, they are not physically limited.

The fear may have developed after a past accident or injury, and this response can naturally lead a person to be cautious. But what happens when we become overly cautious?

For example, an individual in their fifties has an ACL knee injury from a fall on a flight of stairs. This event and specific activity (walking down a flight of stairs) may set up a relationship between that movement and pain. Despite completing a physical rehabilitation regimen and being medically cleared to participate in all activities, the individual may then avoid taking the stairs. The continued avoidance may lead to atrophy of the muscles that were developed in physical therapy and a loss of self-confidence while performing the activity.

Caution related to fear of falling is the main factor that makes people afraid to continue past activities (not taking stairs, not lifting objects off the floor, avoiding outdoor events). Discouragement leads to inactivity. As a result, people experience physical consequences such as muscle atrophy; and mental health consequences, including depression, anxiety, and decreased self-esteem.4 Their daily activities may revolve around this perception, and even their social life can be affected.5

The good news is that the phenomenon of perceived limitation can be addressed!

As fitness professionals, we have many interactions with clients; thus, we have the opportunity to be a part of two important processes important to older adults, as defined by World Health Organization:

  1. Healthy aging, that is, developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age.
  2. Functional ability (i.e., the health-related attributes that enable people to be active and do what they have reason to value), which is determined by intrinsic capacity (i.e., the composite of all the physical and mental capacities of an individual), the environment (i.e., all the factors in the extrinsic world that form the context of an individual’s life), and the interactions between the two.6

There are three reasons that the health and fitness professional’s unique skill sets can be effective with one or more the domains of intrinsic capacity:

  1. Through coaching, we can lessen the client’s fears through listening and encouragement.
  2. We can prescribe exercises that promote healthy aging.
  3. We can identify significant declines in intrinsic capacity and refer clients to appropriate medical professionals.

However, in order to optimize functional ability, the goal of healthy aging, I believe the fitness industry will need to update our approach for goal setting and for prescribing a fitness regimen for this special population.

Introduction to the SPARTA Method for Goal Setting for Healthy Aging

Sled Pull

The SPARTA method involves a synchronicity of Western exercise science and Eastern holistic arts that helps seniors overcome the perception of limitations and movement, promotes acuity, and develops self-confidence, which leads to more empowerment.

The SPARTA system utilizes the body’s innate ability to relearn movement along all anatomical planes. This is accomplished through progressive challenges to the individual’s cognitive and physical fitness. The program combines hand-eye coordination drills, change of direction, ankle mobility, grip strength, power exercises, perturbation, and memory recall drills, among others. It also requires that the fitness professional has an above-average level of engagement in and awareness of the senior’s body language and feedback.

Unlike previous older-adult training models, the SPARTA method is not exclusive to one training modality. That’s the missing link in the fitness industry today! The inclusivity of the system can play a vital role in helping seniors maintain their quality of life, prevent injury, and set the stage for long-term independence.

Later, I will describe the program in more detail, outline the exercises, and compare the SPARTA method to other similar programs.

What Inspired Me to Do This Work?

Upon reading Ken Germano’s doctoral thesis, “Perceptions of Fear of Falling in Older Adults,” I was inspired to expand on his original topic to include my own experience with training seniors.

So, in 2015, I developed the SPARTA method based on years of training with seniors, also known as special populations, from ages sixty up to centenarians. Briefly, this method is designed to be used by fitness professionals from all levels of experience in their work with seniors.

We can all agree that physical activity benefits the sixty-five-plus population. But how do we build upon that consensus? The simple answer is we utilize a comprehensive method for goal setting that is specific to older adults sixty-five and up, and adjusts to the physical and cognitive declines associated with advanced aging. The SPARTA method also encourages the fitness professional to incorporate a series of safe exercises to lessen the person’s fears and help them develop self-confidence.

SPARTA stands for Specificity, Perception, Accessibility, Rewarding, Timetable, and Awareness, and will be discussed in detail on page XX. 

My Background.

My personal training career started in 2006 in Boston. I have been a trainer in small fitness studios, nonprofit gyms such as the YMCA, franchise fitness gyms, and privately owned clubs. Over the fourteen years of training individuals of various ages, fitness levels, backgrounds, and goals, I pursued studies, conducted research, and completed certification in different fields to develop optimal program designs, including the AFAA (Aerobic and Fitness Association of America), NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), and the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association). I also trained in Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, assisted stretching, NASM Corrective Exercise, TRX, Kettlebell, Tai Chi8, post-rehabilitation research, Z-Health performance neurology training, and multiple sclerosis wellness.

My training has expanded over the years as I have constantly sought out new and cutting-edge methods for helping seniors. I learned about neurodynamics, agility training, and tactile training.

A few years ago, I attended a symposium at a local university. One of the presenters was the head of physical therapy for a major league baseball team. After observing some of the exercises, I thought, “If these exercises are good enough to protect the golden shoulder of a pro baseball player, then they’re good enough for us!” I then began to apply modified versions of this approach with my senior clients.

With each specialty I studied, I reviewed human movement, biomechanics, and physiological principles, along with accessory exercises. Regardless of the course or exercise modality, the objective was always improved performance and injury prevention.

The knowledge I gained from each course was not necessarily designed to be used with older adults. However, with a little bit of open-mindedness, creativity, perseverance, and intuition, I was able to identify exercises that could be adapted for seniors. I continue to follow leaders in their respective fields to stay current with the research and its practical applications.

In the next section, I will offer some insights into the methods and exercises I use; later, I will review the wonderful, tangible results of my program.

Teaching how to transfer and receive force using an 85-pound bag

Different backgrounds with one common desire, healthy aging.

As a personal trainer, I have worked with individuals of all ages, from all walks of life, and with a range of fitness goals. However, working with seniors has always been a special privilege. As with any clientele, the duration of training ranged from few months to over a decade, which, in many cases, has led to long-lasting friendships. By no means am I an expert in one field. I am experienced in successfully training seniors who later showed measurable results, including physical and mental and improvement and in the perception of their own limitations.

The common desire my clients all shared, regardless of their gender, age, or pre-conditions, was to maintain or improve their quality of their life as they age. Their perceptions of their own limitations and the aging process varied. Over the years, I witnessed their improvements in mobility, balance, and functional strength, and a decrease in perceptions that were negatively affecting their daily activities.

My definition of successful results is relative to the feedback I received from my clients as well as their family and friends. For example, one client told me:

“Julio, I have so much to be thankful because of your class. The time spent on balance enables me to close my eyes and enjoy the shower and shampoo. Yeah, Julio.” – Marilyn C. Age 84

The All-Star Small-Group Training Team, ages 70-85

The power of motivation, perseverance, and growing older for health and vitality.

As a trainer, I always celebrate small victories with my clients. Those small victories can have a large impact, included being able to stand in the shower without fear, being able to walk the dog for longer periods without knee pain, sit up from a chair with less struggle, being motivated in the morning to do their prescribed workouts, and even the ability to put their pants on one leg at a time. These are tangible, measurable results that have enhanced my clients’ lives tremendously. Many of them had thought they would never be able to do these tasks again. And a side benefit for me was the daily reminder to live life in the present and to be grateful.

“It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes a deep conviction, things begin to happen.” — Muhammad Ali

  1. Belloni G, Cesari M. Frailty and Intrinsic Capacity: Two Distinct but Related Constructs. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:133. Published 2019 Jun 18. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00133
  2. Belloni G, Cesari M. Frailty and Intrinsic Capacity: Two Distinct but Related Constructs. Front Med (Lausanne). 2019;6:133. Published 2019 Jun 18. doi:10.3389/fmed.2019.00133
  3. Cesari M,Araujo de Carvalho I, Amuthavalli Thiyagarajan J, Cooper C, Martin FC, Reginster JY, Vellas B, Beard JR. Evidence for The Domains Supporting The Construct of Intrinsic Capacity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci.2018 Feb 2. doi: 10.1093/gerona/gly011.
  4. Kraft KP, Steel KA, Macmillan F, Olson R, Merom D. Why few older adults participate in complex motor skills: a qualitative study of older adults’ perceptions of difficulty and challenge. BMC Public Health. 2015;15:1186. Published 2015 Nov 26. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-2501-z
  5. Voelcker-Rehage, C. Motor-skill learning in older adults—a review of studies on age-related differences. Eur Rev Aging Phys Act 5, 5–16 (2008) doi:10.1007/s11556-008-0030-9
  6. Cesari M,Araujo de Carvalho I, Amuthavalli Thiyagarajan J, Cooper C, Martin FC, Reginster JY, Vellas B, Beard JR. Evidence for The Domains Supporting The Construct of Intrinsic Capacity. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci.2018 Feb 2. doi: 10.1093/gerona/gly011.
  7. Germano K, Perceptions of Fear of Falling in Older Adults. Walden University. 2019: 133 pages; 13882345.
  8. Strawberry K. Gatts, Marjorie Hines Woollacott, How Tai Chi improves balance: Biomechanics of recovery to a walking slip in impaired seniors, Gait & Posture Volume 25, Issue 2, 2007, Pages 205-214, ISSN 0966-6362,
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