January is the time for new year’s resolutions and topping many people’s lists is a resolve to get more exercise. For seniors, that’s a particularly smart goal. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, regular physical activity is the key to a happier, healthier life. It helps protect against heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and falls, and can also ward off depression and dementia. Of course, with advancing age, joints become stiffer and bones get weaker, so the best fitness regimen for seniors is a low-impact workout that will build strength and stability.
The current recommendation for older adults is about 150 minutes of exercise a week, which may seem daunting. But joining a fitness class (or classes) particularly designed for seniors can make that goal easier to achieve – and even fun! Here is a rundown of some popular exercise options and where to find them locally.
A recent article in AARP magazine listed 21 reasons to do yoga after age 70, including improving flexibility, enhancing balance, easing back pain, soothing stress and slowing aging. Fortunately, Athens is a yoga town, with many choices of age-appropriate classes in a variety of settings, including the YMCA, YWCO, and various yoga studios. Check out the offerings online, looking for classes described as gentle, restorative or therapeutic. While many are done on mats using props, you can also find classes – including Silver Sneakers yoga – that are done in chairs.
If you’re new to yoga, contact the instructor or facility ahead of time to discuss what type of class may be best for you. And once you get started, pay attention to your body. “Gentle yoga doesn’t necessarily mean easy,” says Chandra Ross, the owner of Let It Be Yoga in Watkinsville. “I am always cautioning people to be mindful of how a pose feels and adapt it to their own abilities.”
Nancy Bauman has been attending classes three days a week at the YWCO since receiving her Silver Sneakers card (see box). “I love both the regular yoga and Silver Sneakers yoga classes,” she says. “Yoga helps me maintain muscle strength and balance, as well as a positive attitude. And I enjoy the social aspect of the classes.”
What you’ll need for yoga classes: A mat (while many studios provide mats, having your own is more hygienic), non-slip yoga socks if you don’t want to go barefoot, and comfortable clothes that allow you to move and stretch. Find supplies online.
Where to find classes for seniors:
YWCO (562 Research Dr., Athens, www.ywco.org)
The YWCO is a Silver Sneakers facility, so you’ll find yoga classes done in a chair, plus Easy Hatha Yoga and Relaxing Yoga classes done on mats. Classes are free if you have Medicare insurance that incudes Silver Sneakers. Otherwise, there is an annual membership fee, with a discounted rate for seniors.
YMCA (915 Hawthorne Ave., Athens, www.athensymca.org)
Among the Y’s class offerings for seniors is a relaxing, 90-minute Yin Yoga mat class for “all levels.” The Y offers a senior member rate, payable in monthly installments.
Let it Be Yoga (90 Barnett Shoals Rd., Watkinsville, www.letitbeyoga.org)
Gentle Yoga classes are offered several days a week in a funky red barn decorated with local artwork. There is also an Ahimsa class, described as a blend of gentle and restorative yoga. All classes are drop-in and donation-based ($5-10 suggested). The schedule changes monthly.
Accessible Yoga Studio (195 Miles St., Athens, www.accessibleyogastudio.com)
The studio is connected to Athens Physical Therapy, but it’s not necessary to be a patient to take classes. “Accessible Yoga is for everyone, including people who think they cannot do yoga,” says Manjula Spears, a teacher with 28 years of experience. Classes are offered on a drop-in basis, though Spears says she appreciates advance notice if someone is coming for a visit. The suggested donation is $15, but “we do not turn anyone away.”
Sangha Yoga Studio (834 Prince Ave., Athens, www.healingartscentre.net/sangha-yoga-studio)
Founding director Meghan Burke teaches a Therapeutic Gentle Yoga class, while other instructors offer Gentle Yoga and Yoga for Mature Bodies classes. Punch cards are sold for 6, 10 or 20 classes taken within a set number of weeks, with prices ranging from $11-14 per class.
Five Points Yoga (1260 Milledge Ave., Athens, www.athensfivepointsyoga.com)
A good bet for seniors is the Gentle Flow and Restore class, but owner Shannon Ball is happy to discuss other class options. A 5-class pass is $65 and is valid for three months after the first class. Drop-in price is $17 per class.
The health benefits of tai chi – a low-impact, slow-motion form of exercise – were extolled recently in an article from Harvard Health Publishing, which noted “there is growing evidence that this mind-body practice, which originated in China as a martial art, has value in treating or preventing many health problems.”
Additional good news about tai chi is that it can be adapted to various levels of fitness, from those who are already active to people rehabilitating after a fall or surgery – or even confined to a wheelchair. Michele Simpson, who teaches classes locally, was a runner for 35 years before undergoing orthoscopic surgery. She has practiced tai chi for 15 years and it’s an important part of her own fitness routine.
“Movement in a patterned way is good for the brain,” Simpson tells her students. “It’s good to run or bike, but it’s hard to do a puzzle at the same time.”
Simpson emphasizes breath and mindfulness when she teaches and is always “scanning the room” to make sure participants are not straining or having any difficulties. “The goal is serenity and calmness,” she says, “while at the same time strengthening the body.”
For Ted Staton, a student of Simpson’s, tai chi has helped him achieve better balance. After breaking both legs jumping out of a truck while serving in Vietnam, Staton has experienced ongoing physical problems. Now a retired minister, a recent fall in his yard led him to physical therapy and then to tai chi. “My six-year-old granddaughter calls it ‘exercise for old people,’ he says, “but it has helped me with flexibility and endurance.”
In February, Simpson and Tom Wittenberg will partner to teach a tai chi class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). The class will be offered Tuesdays and Wednesdays from Feb. 11-26 at a cost of $51 for OLLI members.
Tai chi can be done barefoot or wearing lightweight, flexible shoes. Clothing should be comfortable and not restrict your range of motion.
Where to find classes:
YWCO (562 Research Dr., Athens, www.ywco.org)
Simpson has been teaching tai chi at the YWCO for the past year and was joined last fall by another instructor, who teaches a slightly different style. Classes are free with a Silver Sneakers card or covered as part of YWCO membership.
Athens Community Council on Aging (135 Hoyt St., Athens, www.accaging.org)
Simpson teaches at the Center for Active Living, part of ACCA. The annual fee to take classes at the center is $50 for Athens-Clarke County residents, $60 for non-residents. Yoga and other classes are also offered at the center and included in the fee.
Rocksprings Community Center (291 Henderson Ext., Athens, www.accgov.com)
Wittenberg teaches a drop-in tai chi class on Thursdays from 10-11 a.m. through the Leisure Services division of Athens-Clarke County Government. The fee is $3 for Athens-Clarke County residents, $5 for non-residents. On the ACC website homepage, type “tai chi” into the search box.
NIA (pronounced Nee-ah) classes – which initially stood for non-impact aerobics – were developed in the early 1980s in response to the high-intensity workouts of that era and the subsequent wear and tear on bodies. Founder and co-creator Debbie Rosas combined dance, martial arts, and healing arts to “tone your body while transforming your mind.” The 60-minute workout of simple, choreographed moves is practiced barefoot and is adaptable to individual needs and abilities.
Over time, NIA emphasis shifted to Neuromuscular Integrative Activity with a focus on “dynamic ease,” defined as the ability to perform a movement with maximum efficiency and minimal effort. “In NIA, we believe every person can discover, explore, unleash, and enhance their individual potential to live a healthy and meaningful life by engaging their senses and listening to their bodies,” says Michelle Arington, a certified instructor who has taught locally for several years. “Each workout brings mindfulness to your dance movement experience leaving you energized, mentally clear, and emotionally balanced.”
Arington was drawn to NIA after a car accident reduced her ability to move and exercise. “I missed dance,” she says. “I grew up as a dancer and wanted to connect again to that sense of joy I knew as a child. I took a class and fell in love. Nia provided a way to get back to my body.”
Where to find classes:
Elevate Athens (1059-A Baxter St., Athens, www.ElevateAthens.com)
Until this year, Arington has taught classes in multiple locations around town, but in January she opened her own studio to offer a full menu of “body sustainability” options. In addition to Nia, she offers Ageless Grace classes, which she has previously taught through OLLI: brain-stimulating exercises done in a chair to a playlist of “golden oldies.” She also offers Therapeutic Yoga classes and is working to become a Silver Sneakers location. For now, pricing options include drop-in, class cards and memberships.
About Silver Sneakers
If your Medicare insurance includes Silver Sneakers as a benefit, you have access to free memberships and classes at the YWCO and several local commercial gyms. Check your eligibility at www.silversneakers.com. Once you’ve logged in, you can find all the Silver Sneakers facilities in this area. You also have access to on-demand videos and other perks.
Jessica Groves, who holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience, will teach a “Move Better, Live Better” OLLI class in April at the Athens Movement Practice studio that she and her husband Marvin Chapman opened this past year at 160 Tracy Street (Unit 9) in Athens. The 4-part class will be on Mondays and Wednesdays April 20-29 ($20 for OLLI members). Groves also offers an ongoing Master Movers class at the studio.
Both the YMCA and YWCO offer water hydrobics and low-impact cardio classes taught by instructors trained to work with seniors. “I have taught the senior population for over 15 years and have seen the growth of many seniors from getting off some of their medications to moving better and meeting new friends,” says Elyse Giles, wellness director at the YMCA. “Exercise is so important for bones, cardiovascular, mental awareness, flexibility, and balance. It is never too late to start!”
Thrive Integrative Medicine at 2080 Prince Ave. offers a variety of movement classes, ranging from beginners and advanced taiji, foundational yoga, and martial arts study. Find out more at www.thrivespace.com.
Aikido classes for longevity are offered at the Winterville Center for Community and Culture. These are beginner classes taught by John Smartt, 71, a triple black belt practitioner who uses the principles to enhance the lives of older people through expanded confidence, balance, stamina, mental acuity and a fresh take on life.
Photos by Kent Hannon