Fitness becomes increasingly more important to our lives as we age. Regular physical activity for older adults can prevent or delay health problems, while improving flexibility and mobility, both of which are key to performing everyday tasks.
Over the years, Ypsilanti Senior Center Executive Director Monica Prince has heard and overheard members talk about how impactful the center’s fitness classes have been on their quality of life. Through a partnership with nearby Washtenaw Community College, most general fitness classes are led by longtime fitness instructor and personal trainer, Mark A. Harris.
“Several years ago, an instructor from Eastern Michigan University came and studied one of Mark’s classes and one of the things she did was have members make photo journals of their fitness journeys,” Prince said, during an interview with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM). What she did was give everyone cameras and said, ‘Show me what this class meant to you.’ One person took a photo of a staircase and said, ‘I couldn’t get up and down these before I started Mark’s class, I couldn’t climb without pausing. A lot.’”
“Another person took photos of their neighborhood and said, ‘It’s something I’ve always loved doing, walking around and seeing the flowers during the summer.’” Prince relayed. “’And I was doing it far less before I started working with Mark.’”
The Ypsi Senior Center is not an assisted living facility, but rather a home and virtual home away from home for area seniors to socially connect. The center hosts arts and crafts activities, luncheons and dinners and offers a robust schedule of fitness classes that also includes line-dancing and yoga.
Harris, 67, has taught in-person and virtual fitness classes since 2006. He instructs based on five components of fitness:
- Cognitive fitness
“I want folks in here to have the best quality of life – not just quantity but quality,” Harris said. “Getting old is a blessing but how are we moving as we get old? So that’s the thing. I’m trying to have them do the maintenance they need. We want to move freely. Why should only the young people be able to move freely?”
On the morning of Wednesday, May 10, Harris led a general fitness class of 8 members of the community, some of which filtered in toward the end of the 20-minute class. Prince said that fitness area used to be a lot more packed, and she hopes to eventually get back to that.
“Before COVID, this room used to be full,” Prince said. “We moved to virtual classes for the most part, and still do them. We’re just now getting back to some of these (in-person) classes this spring.”
With the assistance of resistance bands, plastic folding chairs, exercise balls and five-pound dumbbells, Harris had members work their arms, backs, adductors, glutes and more. At the end of the class, Harris brought the group together to do cognitive exercises involving the fingers, designed to improve concentration and focus.
“These work both sides of the brain,” Harris told the class. “Basically, when you walk, you subconsciously work both sides of the brain. But consciously, we don’t usually use both sides of the brain. When you focus on doing these exercises, it seems like it’s hard. It’s not hard, it’s something new.”
Ypsilanti resident Carolyn Arnold has attended Harris’ classes since 2021.
“It keeps me flexible; it keeps me sharp,” said 78-year-old Arnold. “I just think keeping you moving, the movement alone, is good for you. Your body feels better. And I feel great. I appreciate all (Mark’s) exercises. If something is difficult, that’s a good thing. I push through it because I feel like I need it.”
One of the benefits of a life full of fitness for Harris is staying active himself. While he’s teaching, he’s improving his own flexibility and mobility. What he does for his own body and mind and for others is invaluable, Harris said, and he’s going to keep doing it for as long as he can.
“We had a couple come back from a vacation in Budapest, Hungary, and they told me Monday that because of the flexibility exercises we do that they were able to move well on their vacation, that they were pain free and it helped them better enjoy themselves,” Harris said. “And that’s what it’s all about. Is helping them find a quality of life that they appreciate.”
May is Older Americans Month. If you are or know of an older American who’d like to become more physically active, learn more about the SilverSneakers® fitness program by reading this story.
Photo credit: Jake Newby/BCBSM