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How to Use the PERMA Model With Older Adults

PERMA-based fitness training can pack a positive punch for fitness and wellness professionals looking to contribute to the well-being of our fast-growing population of active older adults. PERMA is devoted to developing social and mental strength, which can be very helpful in motivating older exercisers. The acronym was coined by Martin Seligman, considered the father of modern positive psychology, in Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being (Free Press 2011). Seligman identifies five pillars of well-being:

  • Positive Emotions
  • Engagement
  • Positive Relationships
  • Meaning
  • Achievement

With PERMA, Seligman recommends focusing on developing overall well-being, an important shift from his previous outlook on positive psychology, which advocated striving for authentic happiness (Seligman 2002). With well-being theory, Seligman says, the goal is to increase the amount of flourishing both in one’s own life and for others on the planet.

While PERMA applies across the age spectrum, it can be adapted into a fitness program model that can help you, your active older-adult clients, their families and our communities successfully add vivacity and happiness to their years. You will feel great adding these practices to your fitness leader toolkit, too.

The Why of PERMA:

THE ‘P’—Positive Emotions

Positivity is a natural high that helps lift our spirits. More than that, research shows positivity broadens our minds and expands our range of vision. Positivity, according to Fredrickson (2009), builds resources, fuels our resilience and transforms us for the better.

How to build positive emotions:

  • Learn people’s names and use them. Get to know your amazing clients.
  • Encourage people to share peak moments.
  • Choose uplifting music your students love. Older adults enjoy music that reminds them of their own peak moments of life (Langer 2009).
  • Send greeting cards, and remember anniversaries and celebrations. Ask your students to help you honor and celebrate special times and people.
  • Be active in your community. Our “Trendsetters” class, in Spring Lake Heights, New Jersey, supports local events such as Race for the Arts 5K, Komen Race for the Cure® and Walk to Cure Diabetes. We have food drives. At Christmas, we gather goodies for families and children in need. Some members even got together and founded a community library.
  • Have a laugh.

In Positivity (Crown 2009), Dr. Barbara Fredrickson discusses creating a mindset of positivity:

  • Be open.
  • Be appreciative.
  • Be curious.
  • Be kind.
  • Be real.

THE ‘E’—Engagement

We create engagement when we are fully present, mindful and creating opportunities for flow that lead us, and our clients, to achieve greater levels of well-being. Flow happens when the entire body is involved in the activity at hand and we “become one” with it (Csikszentmihalyi 1990).

How to build engagement:

  • Develop skill levels by varying cho¬reography, programming and format.
  • Go outside and enjoy “green exercise.”
  • Encourage mindfulness and appreciation for being in the present moment.
  • Have students sign in with their nondominant hand, or give them the option to close their eyes during a movement to fully experience their proprioception.
  • Remind them to truly experience and savor their abilities.
  • Discuss peak moments your active older adults have experienced. Share and savor these memories.

THE ‘R’—Relationships

Positive social connections, promoting social integration and social support, have been linked to positive health behaviors and positive emotional states like feelings of belonging and purpose (McGonigal 2007).

Positive social relationships, coupled with celebrating strengths and virtue, can promote thriving groups, flourishing individuals and greater well-being (Seligman 2011). Relationships can offer a powerful positive influence on our overall health and happiness (Peterson 2006). These are especially important for older adults.

How to build positive relationships:

  • Be a great listener and practice active-listening techniques.
  • Introduce people to each other. Build positive class connections. Be prepared to see what happens and to discover just how closely linked we are to each other.
  • Ask appreciative questions.
  • Greet people at the door and say hello to each person. Give hugs freely.
  • Get in touch with missing members; show you care.

THE ‘M’—Meaning

Meaning can be expressed in different forms. In seeking meaning, we may ask, “Why are we here?” and other spiritual questions. The toughest parts of teaching and leading older adults (and living longer ourselves) can be the many losses we experience over time. Not only do we care about our students; we care about their families, too. There is a closeness that abounds if we let this happen.

During the morning of the 9/11 attacks, I was teaching my “Trendsetter” class: about 25 wonderful women. We had no idea about what was transpiring that morning, but during class, a husband, Martin, walked in, and Maureen, a cherished student, collapsed in his arms.

As I started to understand the gravity of the events, all I could think of was to have my students form a circle, hold hands and offer prayers of comfort and hope. Maureen and Martin lost their son, Brian, that morning. An outpouring of support, care and love for friends who have experienced great loss is powerfully touching.

How to build meaning:

  • Be authentically true and loving.
  • Consider, what is your legacy?
  • Take time to show appreciation.
  • Pray, meditate and care.
  • Talk about organ donation.
  • Learn how other cultures express meaning—how they live, celebrate and honor those who have passed.

THE ‘A’—Achievement

Achievement is about accomplishing your goals. Achievement equals skill times effort.

How to build achievement:

  • Promote SMART (Systematic, Measurable, Action-oriented, Realistic, Timed) goal setting.
  • Create “in-class celebrations” and awards of merit.

Every Christmas for the past few years, our Trendsetter Dance Team has performed for the holiday luncheon. The members rise to the occasion and love performing for this special event. It inspires each of us toward presentation-level performances, and we all rise up, aiming to do our best.

Permanent Changes

A PERMA-based approach supports the need to honor and care for our older-adult clients, our families and our communities. And because wellness professionals are in a powerful position to help change health care for the better, we can lead the way in redefining what it means to grow older by fostering positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement.

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