Seniors come to the YMCA for exercise, stay for the camaraderie

Herald Health CorrespondentMarch 11, 2014 

Francis Wiedl, 94, arrives at the Bradenton YMCA on weekday mornings early. He comes for the chair exercise class twice a week where 40 to 50 seniors use chairs for balance or sitting as they do exercise routines that get their heart rates up, strengthen muscles and improve balance.

Three times a week, Wiedl is in the pool for the water aerobics class. The regular exercise routine is important for keeping him strong and functional but comes with a bonus. Wiedl lives alone and his mornings at the Y are when he gets to socialize and be around people.

"You find good friends here," said Wiedl. "The social aspect is part of it."

Wiedl, a World War II veteran known for his sense of humor, is one of three men in the water aerobics class. The class starts with the "joke-of-the-day" from the instructor and the trio of guys makes it their mission to add to the levity. In the water towards the back, they burst into songs like "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'."

Precision is part of their tradition -- the singing starts on the dot at 9 a.m.

"You can set your watch by it. They really have fun with it," said Jacqueline McMahon, the Y's water aerobics coordinator.

Wiedl is part of a large group at the Bradenton Y. More than 700 of its members are seniors who take chair exercise classes, water aerobics, balance classes, yoga, Zumba and tai chi.

They come for the camaraderie -- celebrating birthdays, making friends, going to Y luncheons and keeping in touch.

If a member who attends regularly misses classes, it's not unusual for a fellow class member to notice and call to see if everything is all right, said McMahon.

"They're really kind to each other. It's not just an exercise class," said McMahon.

That combination of physical exercise and friendly connection can be a potent advantage for healthy aging, according to research on age and wellbeing.

Exercise that strengthens the heart, muscles and bones can prevent or delay diseases like diabetes and osteoporosis. It can preserve abilities needed for tasks like being able to lift a bag of groceries or turn the head to see when driving, plus literally keep people on their feet by increasing better balance.

And exercise in advanced age is recommended for a host of conditions from osteoarthritis to lung disease.

Jeanne Michaels, 89, has been coming to the Bradenton Y for nearly 20 years, after pulmonary rehab therapy at Blake Medical Center. Despite being a non-smoker, she developed COPD -- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease -- in her late 40s. COPD makes breathing difficult and interferes with the ability to walk more than a short distance for lack of air power.

She wasn't a stranger to exercise -- Michaels took yoga classes in the mid-1970s when she lived in Michigan -- but got serious about regular exercise at the Y in 1994. She now takes the twice-weekly chair exercise class and does tai chi once a week.

"I still can't do a lot of walking, but the exercise is what is keeping me going," said Michaels. "And the camaraderie, that makes a big difference."

"No matter what age group you are in or what your limitations are, there is always something you can do. Keep moving, that's the main thing," she said.

The National Institute on Aging recommends exercise for seniors that promote endurance, strength, flexibility and balance. Most seniors, regardless of age or condition can work up to moderate exercise, it says. An ideal routine is 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. But start slowly and don't get discouraged. For people who have been sedentary for a long time, it may take months to reach this goal.

And be aware of the importance of talking to your doctor when you have certain health conditions, including:

• Chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

• If you smoke or are obese.

• Symptoms such as chest pain, an irregular heartbeat, joint swelling, unexplained weight loss.

• Conditions like pneumonia, a blood clot, foot and ankle sores that won't heal or persistent pain or problems after a fall.

• Have undergone cataract surgery or have an eye condition such a detached retina; after a hip replacement.

For more information -- and stories from people who are exercising well past age 65 -- visit www.nihseniorhealth.gov.

Susan Hemmingway, Herald health correspondent, can be reached at shemmingway@hotmail.com

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