Millie Bost is ready to bust some moves. Parking her walker to one side, she settles into a chair. She looks a bit older than the 16 she claims.“I’m too old to cut the mustard and I can’t sniff the lid,” quips Bost as she gets ready for Alexis Perkins’ Chair One Fitness class at Lake Prince Woods, a retirement community in Suffolk, Va. “I love these classes. You get to move your muscles and the fellowship is great.”
“All right!” shouts Perkins from the front of the class as music fills the room. “Let’s get warmed up. Move those arms … and now the legs …1, 2, 3 …”
What’s different about this exercise class is that the participants are sitting. But that’s a good thing. Despite some extra years and creaky joints here and there, seniors are actually the fastest growing demographic in the fitness field. Many are getting and staying fit with the help of chairs.
Perkins, a former Zumba instructor who has taught all over the world, has tailored her own version of chair fitness for the aged and those with mobility issues. She teaches seven classes a week at nursing homes and independent and assisted living centers around Hampton Roads. She’s had clients in wheelchairs, stroke victims and those rehabbing from injury.
“It’s bringing joy and fun to lives,” says Perkins.
But it’s more than that. It’s adding quality to years. The backbone is improving balance, strength and range of motion. Every move has a purpose to help with activities of daily living. Like combing your hair or putting on a sweater.”
While Perkins brings her Chair One Fitness to seniors who don’t get out, many local YMCAs, recreational centers and fitness facilities offer a myriad of senior programs, including longer and more energetic versions of chair fitness. Some centers, such as the Hampton YMCA and the Simon Family Jewish Community Center in Virginia Beach, are affiliated with the Silver Sneakers fitness program, which offers exercise classes for seniors and is often covered by health insurance plans.
When Robbie Koll began teaching chair fitness at the Hampton Y 14 years ago, she had three people in her class. Her Tuesday and Thursday classes are now literally standing room only. They draw a gray-haired crowd of 60, including 100-year-old Ginny Melton.
“It’s great for you healthwise, even your mental state,” says fellow class member 75-year-old Charles Hubbard, who has dropped 80 pounds since he began taking the Hampton class a year ago.
“Many start out sitting in the chair, but as they get stronger, they can stand for the whole hour,” Koll says.
Exercising won’t turn the clock back to age 25, or even 50. Still, studies repeatedly show that exercise — any kind of exercise — leads to a more productive later life.
“It just makes everything easier,” says Emma Robinson, a 70-year-old retired social services worker who takes chair yoga at the Simon Family JCC. “I feel stronger and have more energy. It’s pretty amazing.”
On one Tuesday morning, with the Temptations blasting through the speakers, about 25 seniors were in place for Regina Lavelle’s 45-minute Chair Cardio class at the Simon Family JCC. Chairs were there “if you need it,” but so were bands, light weights and exercises balls.
“The key is creating an encouraging environment,” explains Lavelle, who’s been teaching “chair” for 12 years. “Like calling members by their first name. Many people have been exercising for years and others have never been active. There are all levels of fitness and ages. People make amazing progress.”
Like Heddy Osmunson, who arrived for Classic Chair with the help of a cane and wearing a wide smile. Before she started taking classes three years ago, she spent seven years in a recliner. After two new knees, two hips, a bad back and a bout with cancer, a doctor told her there wasn’t much more to do. “I was 66 and ready to give up,” says Osmunson, who was finally able to make it to the JCC with the help of spinal cord stimulation.
I could barely stand. The classes saved my life.”
Perkins has also seen her share of miracle stories with Chair One Fitness and encountered amazing people, such as Hilde Brush. Brush — a Lake Prince Woods assisted living resident — might be 94, but she’s exercised her whole life and says she doesn’t plan on stopping now.
“I love that I’m removing boundaries from people’s lives,” Perkins says. “Sometimes it’s just a matter of people believing they can do it. They get to a certain age and feel it’s all downhill from there. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Want to take a chair fitness class?
Check with your local fitness center for what senior programs they offer and contact your health insurance plan to see what’s covered. If you’re interested in having Perkins’ Chair One Fitness come to your facility, reach her at email@example.com. Want to try at home? Search “chair fitness” for videos on YouTube.