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Y on Wheels crew keeps seniors rolling
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Participants do warm-up exercises, followed by strength training, stretching and relaxing. - photo by Photo by Ralna Pearson

One peak inside the cafeteria at the Senior Center in Springfield and you quickly realize that what’s taking place inside is not what you usually find at a senior center.

There are no bingo cards or knitting needles, but rather seniors doing everything from stretching to strength training.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, several ladies and a few men in their golden years work out with instructor Sharron Gaborik or Didi Sims in the Y on Wheels class offered by the YMCA. The chair-based class focuses on posture, flexibility and strength training.

Dressed in casual clothes, the participants use dumbbells, resistance tubes and a Styrofoam “noodle” in their routine.

“They get a total body workout,” said Sims, who has been teaching the class since it started about two years ago.

The routine consists of a five-to-10 minute warmup, followed by strength training, then 15 minutes of stretching and relaxation.

Certified in group fitness, Sims works as a fitness coordinator and personal trainer at the YMCA. Her specialty is senior fitness.

Working with seniors requires a slightly different approach than other age groups. Sims is careful about proper body alignment and she gives more direction. It’s important to her that all the participants can see and hear her.

“You need to start at the level they’re at,” she said. “With seniors, you don’t want to overdue (it).”

Sims said she has always had a fondness for seniors, beginning with her relationship with her grandparents. Senior fitness has been the most rewarding age group to work with for her.

“They are so positive and so complimentary,” she said.

The class began with about eight ladies and now there are around 20 students in attendance. Their ages range from 60s to 90s.

One participant is 97 years old and drives herself to class.

“Most of these ladies have never picked up a dumbbell before,” Sims said.

In general as people age, the less they exercise, according to the American Heart Association. Nearly 40 percent of those over age 55 report they do not get any physical exercise.

However, the seniors in Sims’ class defy this trend.

“They get there early,” she said. “They’re sitting there waiting.”

On a Thursday morning they follow Gaborik’s lead attentively. There is no chatter or slacking off. They exercise according to their own individual abilities, but they give it an earnest effort.

And their work reaps rewards.

Nora Duncan, 67, said the class helps her knees.

“I enjoy it pretty good,” she said, adding that the senior center van picks her up at her home and takes her to the class.

Don Guyer, 80, has been attending the class for a year. Before joining he could hardly stretch his left arm out straight. Now he can.

Last year he lost his wife, and he discovered that many in the class have experienced the loss of a spouse.

“The companionship and the people are very nice, and that’s helped a lot,” he said.

Said Sims: “It’s a wonderful social outlet.”

On one Thursday morning the students exercise in their chairs to ABBA, going from tube to dumbbell to “noodle.”

“We turn on our music and we jam,” Sims said.

Effingham Senior Center assistant director Angela Bragg said the class has been an “absolute blessing” to the seniors.

According to the AHA, regular exercise helps to prevent bone loss, increases muscle strength and the ability to do everyday activities such as carrying groceries and getting out of a chair.

Beyond the health benefits and social benefits, staying physically fit is key to maintaining seniors’ independence according to the AHA, the National Institute of Health and the Administration on Aging.

The classes build bone density and muscle mass. The ankle exercises help to make the seniors steadier on their feet.

The NIH recommends that seniors do four types of exercises on a regular basis: endurance such as walking and biking, strengthening, stretching and balance.

While the class is full now there has been talk of adding more classes, said Sims. There is a second Y on Wheels class offered at the Effingham Hospital nursing home. The day it will be held is still being worked out.

Bragg said that the class is part of the center’s overall wellness program.

“We try to create healthier lifestyles, and exercise is one component,” she said.