Teaching Senior Fitness an Unexpected Joy

It's Tuesday morning. The class is full. Weights are strategically wedged at the back of the chairs for easy access. The resistance bands lie across the weights and the balls -- those pesky pink, yellow, green and orange rubber balls that bounce with abandon -- sit under the chairs. The class participants know that soon they'll sitting in the chairs, bouncing the balls, using both hands. And it won't be pretty.

"They're like a jumping bean," said class member Eloise.

The class does better with the toss-and-clap exercise, where they toss the ball straight up and clap before catching it again. In this exercise class, it's not the jump squats or the jumping jacks or push-ups that get the "whew!" It's the bouncing of that ball. It's the balancing while doing a step forward and back. It's sitting down in the chair and then getting back up again. It's gripping a weight with an arthritis-riddled hand.

This is SilverSneakers, the exercise class for the senior set. I teach four such classes a week at a YMCA and have found that these participants are some of the most dedicated you'll ever find at a gym. From the outside, you'd think that it can't that strenuous since they're sitting in chairs most of the time. However, they're not sitting back. You sit forward, tall, shoulders back, for 10 minutes or more. And then we stand and move and then back to the chair. If you need to rest, then you rest.

We use the resistance bands, hand weights, we march and step, maybe do a leg lift or two and that's some good movement for most. Then we get to the ball. Making them bounce it while seated is great for coordination. I wish I could sell tickets. When they go bouncing all over the place, it's pretty entertaining to watch. In the beginning, usually five or six would come flying at me. Now we've got it down to less than three. I'll tell you this: one of the best exercises we do with the ball is to simply squeeze it with all 10 fingers.

I have an hour break between teaching a boot camp class and SilverSneakers. And while the exercises and goals of the participants may be just slightly different, the dynamic is the same: they're here to work, feel better and get ready for bathing suit season. Well, maybe that third goal is just for some of the boot campers. "We stopped worrying about bikini season a long time ago," said SS member Carol.

When I became a personal trainer and group exercise instructor, I did it so I could help others improve their health. Milestones are running a 5 or 10K, losing dress and pants sizes and building endurance on a treadmill or during a cycling sprint. In SilverSneakers, it's getting out of chair with less pain, reaching for something on a high shelf, putting on a coat or a seat belt with ease, or even tossing a ball with a grandchild that are the markers of success. I always ask how everyone is doing and they share how they're able kneel in the garden a little longer, walk a little farther or simply walk without the cane. That's success.

"I could be having the worst day. Then I see them, faced with ailments and challenges and they refuse to let it stop them," said my friend Eric, also an instructor. "What more could I ask for?"

And then there's the music. Please forget any notion that all we play are mellow Big Band or crooner standards. In fact, I nearly got booed out of the room the last time I played the "Sway," "Glow Worm" and "Tangerine" medley. No, we're all about Jackie Wilson's "Baby Workout" and Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll." And then there's the Latin playlist, which means a lot of Cha-Cha-Cha and Mambo and hips that way and hips the other way.

The class itself has turned into a bit of a social hour, with plenty of laughs and peer support. I happen to have some active seniors in the class who relish all the moving around. When I announced that I was getting certified to teach the circuit class, which is more cardio and almost no sitting, they couldn't wait for it to begin. "What do you do in your boot camp class?" an SS-er asked one day. I then demonstrated a burpee, which is a move where you squat, kick your legs straight back, come back to a squat and jump.

"Oh," she said. "Never mind."