Hang on a minute!

Tens of thou­sands of peo­ple are turn­ing to gym­nas­tics to stay strong and flex­i­ble into their 80s – and even be­yond. Amy Flem­ing re­ports

The Guardian - G2 - - Health -

Right now, thou­sands of per­fectly or­di­nary adults are in on­line fo­rums air­ing con­cerns such as: “Is it nec­es­sary to ap­ply the pos­te­rior pelvic tilt in the strad­dled one-arm hand­stand?” Or: “Pan­cake stretch: po­si­tion of the knees?”

These are just a cou­ple of the posts by the 32,432 mem­bers of the fo­rum on Gym­nas­tic Bod­ies – an on­line train­ing pro­gramme de­signed by the for­mer US Olympic gym­nas­tics team coach Christo­pher Som­mer. Pro­file pic­tures fre­quently show off killer abs and favourite (gym­nas­tic) po­si­tions, but the tone of the dis­cus­sions is one of ca­ma­raderie and a shared child­like won­der at the cool stuff their bod­ies are now ca­pa­ble of. Meet the gym­nas­tics geeks.

Gym­nas­tics may sound old-school com­pared with the high-in­ten­sity in­ter­val train­ing and Club­ber­cise classes do­ing the rounds in gym chains, but many peo­ple are qui­etly es­chew­ing the mind­less burn in favour of this more pro­gres­sive ap­proach, us­ing wall bars, rings and ropes and ide­ally cul­mi­nat­ing in a “hu­man flag” (grab­bing on to a ver­ti­cal bar and sus­pend­ing your body hor­i­zon­tally – the ul­ti­mate demon­stra­tion of strength).

Be­fore Som­mer started writ­ing about his train­ing meth­ods in 2003, “gym­nas­tics train­ing was a closed world”, says Gym­nas­tics Bod­ies’ sole Euro­pean af­fil­i­ate, Wes­ley Tan. But in­ter­est has grown quickly and, in 2010, an­other on­line gym­nas­tics-based pro­gramme, Gold Medal Bod­ies (GMB) Fit­ness was launched, and it, too, has now taught tens of thou­sands of peo­ple in their liv­ing rooms. Phys­i­cal classes are also crop­ping up – Tan runs them through his com­pany, Forma, and some gyms, such as Crossfit, of­fer adult gym­nas­tics.

Chris Mills, prin­ci­pal lec­turer in sport and ex­er­cise sci­ence at Portsmouth Univer­sity, is a fan. “Be­ing an adult gym­nast my­self – I started at age 26, my wife started at age 44 – I am an ad­vo­cate of adult gym­nas­tics. It has a num­ber of health ben­e­fits, in­clud­ing gen­eral fit­ness. It also fa­cil­i­tates the de­vel­op­ment of mus­cu­lar strength, flex­i­bil­ity, co­or­di­na­tion and bal­ance. Learn­ing new skills and ex­er­cises chal­lenges your neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sys­tem and may help adult gym­nasts to fo­cus their at­ten­tion, and im­prove con­fi­dence and judg­ment.”

“orig­i­nal gym­nas­tics train­ing method”, while adap­ta­tions are in­creas­ingly called sim­ply “body-weight ex­er­cise”. The model and fit­ness coach Roger Frampton has de­vised his own gym­nas­tics-in­spired “Frampton Method”. His book, The Flex­i­ble Body, will join the hordes of ex­er­cise books re­leased in Jan­uary and his In­sta­gram ac­count, with im­ages of him bal­anc­ing on his hands, toes pointed aloft in end­less vari­a­tions, has 35,000 fol­low­ers (although some may just be there for the swimwear shots).

But, rather than aim­ing to whit­tle the body into a fash­ion­able shape by burn­ing max­i­mum calo­ries, the em­pha­sis of gym­nas­tics is on flex­i­bil­ity, move­ment and strength. Gym­nasts’ bod­ies may look un­achiev­able, but

Tan – who looks as if he prob­a­bly sleeps in a hu­man-flag pose – be­lieves that “this is the way that, as an­i­mals, our bod­ies should nat­u­rally be”.

He and his wife (and Forma co-founder), Claire Berthier, are os­teopaths and all too fa­mil­iar with the aches and pains in­curred by sit­ting still. This is what in­spired the pair – who used to be a mar­tial arts teacher and dancer re­spec­tively – to start teach­ing gym­nas­tics. “I would lis­ten to peo­ple get­ting up­set about their back pain,” says Tan, “but I could only make them feel bet­ter tem­po­rar­ily.” They were never go­ing to see longterm im­prove­ments with­out get­ting off their ar­ses and putting in some hard work them­selves.”

They started by teach­ing a small clutch of their os­teopa­thy clients, who told their friends. Forma now of­fers mul­ti­ple daily classes at two sites in Glouces­ter­shire, where Tan and Berthier live, reg­u­larly at­tended by a com­mu­nity stretch­ing across the south-west and the Mid­lands to Lon­don. Gym­nas­tics Bod­ies on­line mem­bers visit from all over Eu­rope, for in­ten­sive weeks of classes, and oc­ca­sional week­enders for which Som­mer flies over to take classes. Forma takes the method to Lon­don, too, with work­shops at the Ram­bert dance com­pany.

Sur­pris­ingly, Forma classes are not in­tim­i­dat­ing. There are plenty of peo­ple in their 40s, 50s and 60s, work­ing at their own pace, some over­com­ing in­juries only to find them­selves, af­ter a few months, strong and sup­ple enough to hold the rings and turn their bod­ies up­side down, or even do the splits.

Tan is con­vinced that gym­nas­tics train­ing could see many peo­ple into old age in com­fort – cer­tainly, it isn’t un­usual to see gym­nasts in their 80s, still as strong as oxen. The world’s old­est com­pet­ing gym­nast – 91-yearold Jo­hanna Quaas – still puts on an awe-in­spir­ing show. In 2006 re­searchers in Fin­land stud­ied 117 women, with an av­er­age age of 62, over six years and found, per­haps pre­dictably, that those who did recre­ational gym­nas­tics main­tained su­pe­rior bone den­sity, bone strength and mus­cu­lar agility.

Most Forma classes are called Foun­da­tions, and start with a warm up, trav­el­ling around the stu­dio in var­i­ous in­creas­ingly tax­ing ways. Warm up done, ev­ery­one finds a part­ner to start the fun stuff – though no two classes are the same. There might be strength­build­ing planks on par­al­lette bars, or a bridge while hold­ing on to your part­ner’s an­kles, who can then help you in­crease your back bend by lift­ing your waist a lit­tle higher for you. Then there are any num­ber of no-mess­ing core strength­en­ing drills, be­fore at­tempt­ing some­thing more ad­ven­tur­ous on the rings or bars – work­ing to­wards that flag (in my head, at least).

Spe­cial­ist hand­stand and rings classes are run separately, but you need to have built strength in the Foun­da­tions classes first. Es­sen­tially, you’re train­ing your body so you can get back on the climb­ing frame. “That’s the best thing about it,” says Tan. “You get to play like a kid again.”

‘This is the way that, as an­i­mals, our bod­ies should be’

Jo­hanna Quaas … still puts on an awe-in­spir­ing show at 91

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