Companionship and stronger bones:  Fitness class improves balance, fitness in seniors

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning at Elm Place senior living community, a group of fitness-minded residents get together for a strength training routine called Bone Builders.

The United Way-sponsored program recruits instructors from the ranks of seniors who participate, which involves an hour’s worth of strengthening and balance exercises, designed to target specific muscle groups and maintain bone mass—a common struggle as people age. 

The program is specifically designed to prevent, and possibly reverse, the effects of osteoporosis. It is based on research conducted and published by Tufts University, which shows that strength training just twice a week dramatically reduces the risk of fractures due to the disease.

The instructor group at Elm Place took a certification class through the United Way last fall, and has been offering the course ever since. To get certified, they had to go through all the exercises with another certified instructor.

“We found out we were doing it too fast,” said instructor Ann McGonigle. “So it was good for us to learn that.”

Fellow instructors Guy and Aline Bathalon have been at it for two years, and say they have seen positive results for their students.

“We had one woman who would have to hold onto the chair to do her exercises” Guy said. “And then, about four months into the bone builders, she would do it on her own with no help from the chair.”

McGonigle also said she has noticed good changes since being involved.

“I noticed after I’d been doing it, the first time I got on my bike, normally I was shaking, but now I don’t shake when I get on my bike,” she said. “That’s when I noticed it.”

As they gather to start the class, there’s a happy social attitude among the participants, and a positive energy.  The joking and the company is as much a part of the class as the exercise. 

Joking aside, the hour-long regimen is comprehensive.  Ankle weights are used for leg lift exercises, and at eight reps each, it’s not a simple movement. As they move through their routine, McGonigle leads the group to increasingly more difficult movements, and like any set of exercises, there are favorites, and not-so-favorites.

“Ok, now we can sit down and do the one that everybody hates,” says McGonigle. “The triceps overhead.”

The group counts out the eight reps, holding their weights overhead while counting to 10.

“It’s Tuesday. I always feel it more on Tuesday,” remarks McGinigle.

Next, she directs them to an exercise called the shoulder blade squeeze, which involves holding the weights straight out in front and, as the name suggests, squeezing the shoulder blades together. 

“Also know as ‘driving the car,’” remarked McGonigle. 

To that, Elm Place resident and Bone Builder participant John Smith commented with a deadpan voice,  “Milton police picked me up yesterday, I was doing three miles in a two mile an hour zone.”

The group laughs out loud, and fellow Bone Builder Bill Elliott chimed in with,  “That’s 30 percent over the speed limit.”

Everyone laughed again.

Elliott, who actually lives in Georgia but comes down with his wife, Betty, for the class, said he also has noticed results since becoming a Bone Builder. He used to strain to turn his head to check traffic while driving, but now he says he has no trouble at all doing it.

Quite a few of the Bone Builder participants are in their 80’s, with the oldest being 87. 

Generally, there are between 10 and 12 in the class, but that number can vary based on the day. 

At the end of this particular session, the class banters and tells stories. As Betty Elliott pulls a table across the room to help set the meeting room back to how it was before the class, Aline Bathalon shouted “Look at that strength!”

Some in the class have come to look forward to the limber feeling they get from the regimen, and as a result they’ve increased the frequency of their sessions. Smith said he’s began doing the exercises on his own on Saturdays in his apartment. Still, it’s the group participation that keeps them coming back.

“I really like to see them joking and laughing,” said Guy Bathalon. “That, to me, is one of the best aspects. We have one woman who comes to the class, and she’s just full of it. So she keeps us all laughing.”

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