Senior fitness class makes working out fun

Story and photo by Alexis Young

Sheila Alford, an energetic 90-year-old, can officially say goodbye to her walker thanks to an exercise program designed for older adults.

When she began participating in EnhanceFitness at the Tenth East Senior Center, Alford could not complete a single arm curl with five pounds fastened to her wrist. But after just four months in the program, she was able to complete 20 repetitions.

“I have seen just about every single one of my bodily functions improve,” Alford said. “It’s the teacher, she really makes me motivated.”

Sheila Alford dances to music as part of the EnhanceFitness exercises at the Tenth East Senior Center

Alford found exactly what she was looking for in EnhanceFitness, an exercise program taught at seven different locations across Utah. These classes are designed for older adults at all fitness levels and focus on aerobic activity, strength conditioning, flexibility and balance.

Nichole Shepard, the health and fitness instructor at the Tenth East Senior Center, is amazed by Alfords’s positive attitude. Shepard said she is a great example to everyone because does not let life bring her down.

“Instead of giving in to age, she goes along with it, and makes the best of what she has. She not only comes to my class three times a week, she attends two other fitness classes in her spare time,” Shepard said. “Sheila has made huge improvements, visually you can see she has more energy during class routines.”

Adding her own personal touch to every exercise class, Shepard creates the playlists to set music from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. She also choreographs every cardiovascular routine, adds verbal tasks during the strengthening sequence and incorporates a joke at the end of every clas

“They actually get mad at me now if I don’t bring along a joke,” Shepard said, “and because they are all having fun, they don’t realize their bodies are getting a great workout.”

EnhanceFitness is all evidence based, and was developed by the University of Washington’s Health Promotion Research Center (HPRC). According to the HPRC Web site, research has revealed participants of EnhanceFitness do significantly improve their health. In a survey done in 2008 by HPRC, seniors were asked about improvements in their physical capabilities. More than 94 percent said they had maintained or greatly improved their physical capabilities. And in 2006, the International Council on Active Aging recognized Project Enhance, which includes EnhanceFitness, as the sixth most innovative active aging program in North America.

At community senior centers around the state, EnhanceFitness is a free program providing a one-hour supervised class three times per week on an ongoing basis. The customized program allows the instructors to be creative and choreograph their own routine, yet still retain the EnhanceFitness exercises that have been proven to help older adults in maintaining and improving their strength, balance, posture, endurance and emotions. EnhanceFitness also incorporates alternative exercises in the program specifically intended for frail seniors. A participant such as Sheila Alford can do these exercises by using a support or sitting in a normal chai

“The most challenging part for me is when I have to move my feet during cardio; my arms are OK, but most of the time I have to hang on to my chair,” Alford said.

The energy was soaring through the roof during a recent visit to the Tenth East Senior Center. The open room was filled with 10 enthusiastic women throwing their hands up in the air and dancing around the circle of chairs to the song, “When the Saints go Marching In.” The ball really got rolling when it came time to strength train. Participants had to count the number of arm curl repetitions they were completing in Spanish. After the arm exercises, the women were instructed to lift their leg while holding onto a chair and recalling a variety of things such as cities, states, colors, animals or candy bar

“A verbal task significantly helps the seniors with their cognitive abilities,” said Michaelene Waters, a health educator for Salt Lake County and the founder of EnhanceFitness in Utah.

Waters started teaching EnhanceFitness classes in Utah at two different locations: the Draper Senior Center and Tenth East Senior Center. Seven classes are now offered at different locations around the Salt Lake Valley.

“My main focus now is growing the program. I would like to see EnhanceFitness in all of the senior centers throughout Utah,” Waters said.

Attendance at the Tenth East Senior Center is growing and the demand for more classes is increasing.

“Participants at the senior center range from 75 to 80 years old, and women by far are the most common types who participate,” Water said.

At the Tenth East Senior Center, participants fill out a questionnaire and perform a fitness check when they enroll. The check-up is then repeated every four months throughout the program. The fitness test is comprised of three things: how many times a participant can rise from a chair and stand up in 30 seconds; 30-second arm curls with five pounds fastened to the wrist; and the 8 feet up and go, which is a test that utilizes cones for balance and agility.

“The best part of EnhanceFitness is the social aspect of group exercise. They put in more effort when they are all together and they just have fun,” Waters said.

In all seven locations throughout the state, the success rate remains high.

“The program is ongoing and not very many people drop out, most people stick with it,” she said. “The only reason someone might drop out is if they get injured or have to move.”

Research conducted by HPRC over the past 15 years has demonstrated that getting sufficient physical activity, including strength training, helps people with arthritis, improves balance, helps to prevent falls and helps seniors to become more socially connected.

“Strength training is [one of] the most beneficial parts to EnhanceFitness, and is one of the most important aspects an older adult can incorporate into his or her life,” Waters said.

From time to time, Sheila Alford does not want to come to class, but says she comes for the health benefits and to see her friends. Alford is one of many who can affirm the values of EnhanceFitness and what it has added to her life.

“We will all age, but how we age is a personal choice. You can let age get the best of you, or you can continue to challenge your mind and your body,” Nichole Shepard said.

For more information about the EnhanceFitness program, contact Michaelene Waters at mwaters@slco.org.