Meet the Swedish over-90s who are regulars at the gym

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Meet the Swedish over-90s who are regulars at the gym
Several gyms across Sweden offer dedicated sessions for the over-90 age group. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

As Sweden's population ages, interest in social activities for the older age groups has soared. The Body Joy gym in Värmdö, outer Stockholm, is one of many where pensioners regularly meet to train together.


"It's healthy and keeps us alive," 97-year-old Kerstin Hellgren puts it.

A walking frame is parked by the wall of the airy venue. At the other end, a group of older men and women are chatting as the music is turned on.

"We'll be working out to the song Staying Alive," says Monica Elsinga, a part-owner of Body Joy and a trainer for the 90-plus group. She begins the warm-up and the group start jogging before they move into butt kicks.

The weekly workout takes the form of half an hour's circuit training, where they use special machines that adjust resistance based on usage. The training is rounded off with a fika together, and it's clear that the social aspect is just as key as the physical for this work-out group.

"It's such a nice group here, unbelievably nice," says Hellgren, who has been a participant since it was set up.

A light in the ceiling glows red and green to let participants know when they should be working out and when it's time to switch exercise. Hellgren puts on a pair of boxing gloves and, when the light changes to green, starts punching a large sandbag.

"I had a few stereotypes in mind when we started this: old ladies can't box. But clearly they can," says trainer Elsinga. 

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Kerstin Hellgren practises boxing while Birgitta Wetterdal tries out one of the specially adapted machines. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT

In a study by The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences (GIH), 261 people aged between 65 and 90 years old were followed as they underwent exercise classes with a trainer twice a week. This showed that physical activity for older people can lead to better physical capacity in terms of both strength and fitness over a two-month period.

In turn, improved strength and fitness have strong links with lower occurrence of many different illnesses, and with a longer life expectancy.

And no matter how old you are, you can improve. 

"Most of the time you can see quite large improvements after two months, especially in muscle strength," says Eva Andersson, a GIH lecturer in sport science. She also explains that exercise can be just as good as CBT therapy or anti-depressants for treating moderate depression in adults.

Kerstin Hellgren lifts an eight kilo kettlebell and swings it around her body. When she's done, she says that she has been active throughout her life and still goes cross country skiing during winter, but adds that she can no longer keep up with her grandchildren.

Andersson says that for elderly people considering taking up exercise, it doesn't matter whether or not you have experience in sport or physical activity.

"A great majority of the elderly people who train get better results, and the greatest improvements are often in those who were least well-trained when they began. It's never too late to start training," she recommends.

The lecturer says one thing to bear in mind is that people with multiple illnesses, for example severe dementia or people who have recently had a serious stroke or heart attack, it's preferable to train with a physiotherapist. 

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Fitness trainer Monica Elsinga takes a fika with Stig Lundahl, Rurik Kamb, Birgitta Wetterdal and Kerstin Hellgren at Body Joy. Foto: Claudio Bresciani/TT

When the group has finished, they meet for a fika together, the Swedish tradition of coffee and sweet pastries. Ninety-one-year-old Rurik Kamb reaches the table using his walking frame. Four years ago, he had a stroke, and it was the following year that he joined the fitness group.

"I had never done this type of training before. And I feel like it's going in the right direction after the stroke," he says.

Birgitta Wetterdal, sitting beside him, puts a hand on his shoulder and says she has seen him improve.

"I keep an eye on him. He has been getting a bit better the whole time, every time," she says.

"I want to be like I was before, and you can't give up," says Kamb.

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Regular exercise has been shown to have various positive results for elderly people's physical health. Both diastolic and systolic blood pressure can be lowered, as can the levels of fat and sugar in blood. Exercise can strengthen skeletons, pain can be reduced and the same can be true of depression.

"It's been shown that those who exercise regularly and have quite good fitness but bad blood pressure live longer than those with good blood pressure but low levels of fitness," says Andersson. "That also applies to weight, since studies have shown if you're overweight but have good fitness you live longer than if you're a normal weight but with lower fitness."

Kerstin Hellgren finishes her coffee and gets ready to go home.

"You miss it if you don't come here. It's fun to see how you're improving, how you're lifting heavier weights. The social part is really important for those of us who are home alone. When you're here, you know you're not completely alone," she says.


a warm-up – en uppvärmning

strength – styrka

dementia – demens

physiotherapist – sjukgymnast

blood pressure – blodtryck

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