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Senior Lifestyles

Exercising seniors reap big benefits

Sharron Slye of Los Altos could be the poster child for the 50+ Prime Time Wellness/Active Older Adults Program at the El Camino YMCA in Mountain View.

The program encourages older adults to engage in regular strength training so they stay fit and lead a more active life. "It's for older adults, like myself," said program coordinator Dolores Thompson. "I'm a great believer that if you take care of yourself physically, you improve your mental health. Exercise is an effective treatment for depression."

It worked for Slye, who suffered a knee injury many years ago that led to depression as her activity level dropped. She gained weight, became diabetic and eventually had to use a walker. Because of her inactivity and excess weight, she was forced to use insulin.

But, about two and a half years ago, she took control of her life by following a medically supervised diet and attending active older adult (AOA) classes at the Y. She began with Dr. Karl Knopf's water aerobics three days a week and, after a while, added a twice-weekly chair exercise class, called Sit and Be Fit. She began to see results as the pounds dropped off, allowing her to have knee replacement surgery, after which she began going to the Y's Wellness Center to use the recumbent bike, treadmill and Stairmaster.

Today, Slye has dropped 170 pounds, no longer needs insulin and says she is a much healthier, happier person. Monday through Friday mornings you'll find her pedaling on recumbent bike No. 1 in the Wellness Center.

Water aerobics and chair exercises are two of the classes that cater to older adults. In addition, the Y offers gentle yoga, tai chi, gentle cycling, wellness walks and Fit and Flexible.

Joyce Phillips of Los Altos, who teaches the Fit and Flexible class, is herself an active older adult. She has taught that particular class since 1989, as well as teaching an aerobics class at the Hillview Community Center since 1980. She plays tennis Tuesdays and Wednesdays and walks with a group of friends Mondays and Fridays. And then there's bridge and working as a volunteer usher for TheatreWorks.

Her thrice-weekly Fit and Flexible classes average more than 25 participants. And the ages range from 50-plus (or younger) to 90-something. "I encourage people to do what they can do," she said. "People modify the exercises to suit themselves, perhaps because of a back or hip replacement. I give verbal cues when people aren't doing the right things."

Fitness classes are only one part of the 50+ Prime Time Wellness/Active Older Adults Program. In addition, there is a monthly lecture and lunch, open to the public.

A "mind and body experience" is how Liz Siegel describes the AOA program.

"We offer lectures to stimulate the mind and exercises to help the body," said Siegel, who teaches the Y's chair exercise class. She also is a fitness specialist at The Forum Retirement Community in Cupertino and a graduate of the adaptive fitness program at Foothill College, where she was a student of Knopf's, a key player in the AOA program.

Knopf, a professor of adaptive physical education at Foothill, has written several books, including the recently published "Weights for 50+: Building Strength, Staying Healthy and Enjoying an Active Lifestyle" (Ulysses Press, 2005). He will be one of the speakers at a lecture/lunch program March 15. His topic: "Grow Strong, Not Old."

"We're hoping to encourage people to go to the lectures," said Phillips, who added that the $2 lunch and chance to socialize are incentives. The goal is to motivate older adults to visit the Wellness Center or try some AOA fitness classes.

"If you're in a class with 20-somethings, it's easy to get frustrated. But in programs designed specifically for 50-plus people, you can feel empowered," Siegel said.

Thompson described the AOA's wellness program as a "three-legged stool" offering intellectual stimulation, social interaction and exercise. "The concept of wellness is much broader than fitness because it addresses social needs as well," she said. For example, there are birthday celebrations, an annual picnic and a book exchange program.

According to Knopf, all it takes for older adults to stay fit and live a more active life is 30 minutes of walking three times a week, a bit of stretching and lifting small weights two times a week. Regular strength training can take many forms - from water aerobics to simply lifting a can of beans repeatedly.

"Exercise is cheaper than going to a doctor, and it helps people not become discouraged," Siegel said. "It's a great mood lifter."

For more information, contact Dolores Thompson, AOA program coordinator, at 694-6783 or 400-8172.

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