Functional fitness

Area seniors are signing up for fitness classes and programs designed to improve their quality and quantity of life through movement.

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Whether it’s raking leaves in the fall, pruning a 40-foot hedge, tending to her annual garden or going up a 3-foot ladder, Arlington resident and octogenarian Barbara Nash is sure of herself when doing these tasks. “I feel confident because I feel like I am strong enough to do all this,” she says. “ … I feel confident that I am not going to fall. My balance is good enough to do it.”

Nash attributes her ability to meet these everyday challenges to her nearly two decades spent at Virginia Hospital Center’s (VHC) Healthy Living Seniorcise program. Held three times a week over 10 weeks, the class is geared toward older adults with a focus on strength, flexibility, balance and some cardio. “It makes me feel like I can walk wherever I want to walk,” Nash says. “It makes me feel healthy. It makes me want to be healthy and do more things.”

In fact, there isn’t anything that she doesn’t love about the program. “I think everyone looks forward to seeing everyone else, but we are all business for the hour of the class,” she says. “Any chit-chat comes before or after class. We know if we don’t work we aren’t going to get the benefit of the class.” Even on days where she or others might feel a bit down or not as strong, the program lifts their spirits. “By the end of class, you are feeling good,” Nash says.

Nash jokes that if she wasn’t part of the program, she would probably be a sloth. “It’s hard to get motivated at home even though I love my neighborhood and love to walk,” she says. Over the holiday season, when there is a small break in between classes, she notices that she isn’t in as good of shape than before the hiatus. “I’m a social person and I think that is why we come to the class,” she says. “We look forward to seeing each other and having that connection. … We’ve all taken on the idea that in order to age well, you need to be healthy and your body has to be in good shape.”

kettle-bellIf you are 65 years or older and generally fit with no limiting health conditions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends two hours and 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days focusing on all major muscle groups. Many area older adults are turning to senior-specific fitness classes and programs at gyms, hospitals and other organizations to hit these crucial wellness goals.

“[Senior-specific fitness classes] are important from a mental standpoint as well as a physical standpoint,” says Dr. Frederick W. Parker, of the UVA Health System’s Novant Health Bull Run Family Medicine. “Exercise for everyone reduces anxiety and depression. We know that for sure so, for seniors, who are more prone to increasing anxiety to depression, exercise is really beneficial. From a physical standpoint, staying active just keeps the joints moving, keeps the muscles toned, improves balance and stamina.” Exercise is also crucial to keeping an ideal weight, improving blood pressure, lowering cholesterol and it has a positive effect on bone density.

Inactivity can be dangerous for seniors leading to low endurance, muscle atrophy and a reduction in cardiovascular health. “If the heart doesn’t get mildly stressed by exercise and increase the heart rate, you are going to lose that cardiac endurance,” Parker says. “Exercise helps everything from circulation to metabolism to muscle endurance and strength. If you have someone who just sat on the couch and walked to the refrigerator, you are getting no metabolism, no calorie burn, no muscle strengthening, no stretching. You are going to have somebody who is more prone to metabolic problems, weight gain and just disuse of muscles, which leads to degeneration of not only individual joints and the extremities, but [muscles] in your lower back. [Exercise is] definitely beneficial. I don’t think that there is any question.”

However, Parker commonly sees patients who think they need to run or do really intense aerobic activity to see benefits. “That really is not necessary as you get older,” he says. If you are an individual who has been active for most of your life, Parker says an intense activity may be continued as long as it is safe. But if you are not seasoned at physical activity, starting small and moving up is fine. “You don’t have to go out there and jog to get beneficial exercise,” he says. “You have to realize the conservative approach, the safe approach, to exercise is also important.”

Parker believes scheduled classes are great for older adults because they are organized with a set schedule. “That is where the social part comes in,” he says. “They meet their friends. They exercise together. [There is] comradery.”

24 Hour Fitness, a national workout club chain with several locations in the Northern Virginia area, hosts a program specific to seniors, who are referred to as Active Plus members. The SilverSneakers Classic focuses on a variety of body exercises for increasing muscle strength, range of motion and everyday activity abilities. The SilverSneakers Cardio Circuit is designed to increase cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Using a chair for support, SilverSneakers YogaStretch helps participants with flexibility, balance and range of movement.

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“At 24 Hour Fitness, the one thing we really believe in is, regardless of your age and fitness level, maintaining that healthy lifestyle is really going to be a key to reverse that aging process,” says Alex Eliades, fitness manager at the Falls Church branch. “Bodies in motion tend to stay in motion and we just want to let everyone know that you are never really too old to get moving again and have that active lifestyle become part of your daily habits.”

For those who have arthritis or balance issues, the club also offers low-impact Aqua classes and Aqua Zumba in their swimming pool. “That Aqua environment is a good place for you to have no pressure on your joints and be able to move a little more freely,” says Tim Sun, personal trainer and SilverSneakers coordinator at 24 Hour Fitness Fairfax.

Eliades will often give tours to those individuals thinking about joining the facility. “It’s really about tailoring the gym to them,” he says. “I am not going to spend a lot of time showing you treadmills and different TRX things. We are going to focus on the Active Plus classes. We want to learn about you and put you into the right class. If someone has some hip mobility problems, I’m not going to recommend them for a Zumba Gold dance class to start off with. We are going to start in the pool. From the moment you walk into our doors at 24, we are going to make sure that we point you in the right direction about how to make you the most successful and how to improve your quality of life and if we can do that, everything else should really take care of itself.”

Carol Adock-Stearn joined 24 Hour Fitness in July 2016. While working with a trainer, he suggested she try their SilverSneakers class because of the functional fitness aspect. She has been attending twice a week for more than a year. “I think the balance and stretching is so useful to anybody no matter what their age,” she says. “Our instructor is very good about bringing things into perspective like if you slip on ice, with these balance exercises you can catch yourself a little bit better.”

The Fairfax resident says she is lucky to be in good physical shape. She did break her ankle a couple of years ago. A year after the injury, Adock-Stearn didn’t feel that she had the stability that she should have, but coming to the classes has helped bring strength and more mobility back. Her ankle is now in better shape than before the injury.
Her class usually has the same group of people, between 15 to 20 members, and everyone is very social. They even do a potluck every couple of months to socialize after class to learn more about each other.

gripBarbara Lowrey knew she wanted to take an exercise class, but wanted a location where the teachers would be mindful to the health conditions and well-being of their students. The Alexandria resident chose to attend Inova’s twice-a-week Seniorcize class. “I danced for a long time and I did not want to be in a class where the instructor assumed we were 20 years old and we could do every jump that was possible,” Lowrey says. “I wanted a place that was sensitive to our health and sensitive to the needs of seniors.”

Inova HealthSource provides several classes geared specifically toward seniors. With a focus on maintaining bone health and overall well-being, Strength Training for Seniors pairs strength development with cardiovascular conditioning. The Seniorcize class marries a low intensity workout with cardiovascular, strength and flexibility movements and exercises.

Inova fitness instructor Benedicte Dellaria, who teaches the senior strength training, says the classes are important to see her participants smile and have fun. “This is the most precious part of my job,” she says. “They are really empowering themselves and are committed to class. When you see them feeling good about a class and good about themselves, it is really, really rewarding.”

Some of the exercises she has participants do include stretches such as reaching for the sky with both hands, neck stretches and twisting the spine in the lower and upper back. She also has participants use Thera bands of different difficulties to work on their biceps, triceps and shoulders.

The class has helped Lowrey continue to be active. “I find exercising with a group is easier for me than just doing it alone,” she says. “The group setting is very helpful. I’ve gotten to be friends with the people in the class so there is some extra motivation now for me. These are people I have grown to care about and enjoy being with and we [can talk] about a variety of things.”

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Lowrey had surgery on her right shoulder about a year and a half ago. Some of the exercises she does in the class are the same ones she did in physical therapy. Noting that the class is well-rounded by helping the entire body, she appreciates her instructors being sensitive to classmates’ different abilities to do the exercises. “If it hurts you to use your right arm, don’t do it,” she says. “The instructors have been very cognizant [that you shouldn’t] push yourself too far.”

The Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services provides fitness-related classes and activities including aerobics, yoga and tai chi for those ages 55 and up at their four senior centers.

“Functional fitness has become a buzzword in the industry, but really what it has morphed into is not the latest fitness gadgets or tire flipping or rope climbing,” says Tom Milenkevich, county fitness programmer. “We look at it as function being ‘Can you get out of bed in the morning pain-free?’ ‘Can you reach down and tie your shoe?’ ‘Can you get up off the floor?’ ‘Can you play with the grandkids in the backyard?’ We are trying to cultivate our programs for a [healthy] body and [healthy] activity levels not necessarily how much you can bench press or how fast you can run.”

VHC puts on a number of senior/gentle classes such as adaptive or seated yoga; matter of balance; strength and stretch for seniors; gentle yoga and Pilates; and tai chi. For nearly 30 years, VHC has also sponsored a “Walk Fit” mall walking program every Tuesday and Thursday at Fashion Centre in Arlington’s Pentagon City.

jump-rope“I truly believe exercise is medicine,” says Cathy Turner, VHC’s Director of Health Promotion and Senior Health. “If you look at all the studies out there, as people age, if they continue to exercise, it helps maintain their strength. It helps improve their balance so it enables seniors to do all the things that they want to continue to do and enjoy life.” The different exercises involving strength, balance and cardiovascular all have benefits for different aspects of senior health.

For nearly a decade, Carl Hoffman has been a volunteer with VHC’s Chaplain Services patient companion program. In that role, he sat with critically ill patients so family members could have a break. Now, he serves as a captain to coordinate volunteers during late evening to early morning shifts.

The Arlington resident heard about the hospital’s Seniorcise program while volunteering there a couple of years ago. Attending three times a week, Hoffman knows he needs to keep moving especially after recently having back surgery. “I’m not crazy about the exercise ’cause it is hard work, but there is a lot of community there,” he says. “A lot of friendship. A lot of support in that class. We are all good friends. It’s fun to be there. It’s good support.”

VHC classes average about 15 to 20 participants and usually fill up quite fast, especially Seniorcise and gentle yoga. “Our instructors do a really good job of gauging the different levels of people within the class so they can accommodate all different levels,” Turner says. Some older adults are mobile while others have walkers or canes. They intentionally keep senior class sizes small. “You don’t want the classes too big because you want to be able as an instructor to keep an eye on all of your participants,” she says.

With more than 25 years spent at VHC, Turner started out as a full-time instructor and now comes back as a substitute for senior classes. She says it is heartwarming to see participants who have been in senior classes for five, 10 and even 15 years. “I think the wonderful thing about some of these senior exercise classes is it is not just the value of the exercise and what that does for their mind and body but it also becomes a very social component too,” she says. “As we age what is also really important to our health is to have those social connections.” If a classmate doesn’t show up for a class for a couple of days and people know they weren’t going on vacation, they will call and check up on them.

Turner also has a front-row seat to how valuable the classes are to its participants. Some will begin a class barely able to get out of a seat. Over time, they will progress to getting out of their chair and increasing the amount of weights they use or their range of motion.

“Regardless of where people take classes or what they do for exercises, the most important thing is [for] people, of all ages, exercise is like the magic pill,” Turner says. “It helps with reducing your risk for so many types of diseases. It helps with your mental health. It helps with relieving stress. I think that no matter how old someone is, they are never too old to start exercising and it is critical to continue it throughout their decades.”

How Much Activity Do Older Adults Need?

2 hours and 30 minutes (150 minutes) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., brisk walking) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).


1 hour and 15 minutes (75 minutes) of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity (i.e., jogging or running) every week and muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).


An equivalent mix of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity and muscle strengthening activities on two or more days a week that work all major muscle groups (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms).

(February 2018)