Keeping fit as a senior on Martha’s Vineyard

Melissa Aldeborg's water aerobics class is in action at the YMCA of M.V. on Fridays at 9:30 am. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

There was a time when a mainly sedentary lifestyle was considered a reward for years of hard work. Now, however, the reverse is almost true. With increased awareness of the benefits of regular exercise, older people are now discovering that remaining fit is more important than ever for avoiding serious health problems and, as the responsibilities of work and child rearing lessen, they have more time to devote to maintaining an active lifestyle.

More and more, fitness centers are catering to older individuals who are either not accustomed to regular exercise or are looking to continue a fitness program but seeking safer ways to work out.

Cathy Ashmun, personal trainer and former club manager of the Workout and Vineyard Tennis Center at the airport, sees a lot of seniors both in classes at the health club and as her individual clients.

Ms. Ashmun, a former medical technician, has a number of older clients who see her for functional therapy — staying fit in order to handle the daily functions of life. “I get a lot of people who want to stay at home and remain independent,” she says. “As you get older, the everyday things become more tricky. People want to maintain their balance so they’re not tripping. They want to keep driving. We’re healthier and living longer. The trick is not having to rely on your kids for help.”

Ms. Ashmun also encourages seniors to try classes at the Workout. “Every class here has easy ways to modify,” she says. “They’re multi-level. People can do what they can.” She notes that morning classes — especially pilates and strength training — have a high percentage of older participants.

Water workouts

Pool-based exercise classes are especially popular among seniors. Leslie Craven teaches water aerobics and other forms of exercise in the pool at the YMCA of Martha’s Vineyard. Her morning classes in the pool consist of a series of exercises performed with the participants submerged to about chest high.

“These are shallow classes,” Ms. Craven says. “You don’t have to know how to swim and you don’t have to get your head wet. It’s a great way to get exercise without compromising the body. It’s ideal for anyone with any kind of injuries or overweight people.”

Many of the advantages to working out in the water are especially applicable to older bodies. Ms. Craven elaborates on some of the benefits. “As you age, your range of motion becomes more limited. When you put someone in the water, the water supports the limbs and the range of motion is increased.”

She adds that just being in the water alleviates pain (for example from arthritis or hip replacement surgery) and builds stronger chest wall muscles making it ideal for those suffering from COPD, emphysema, and asthma. And just about anyone, despite their limitations, can work out in the water.

“You don’t have to be coordinated,” says Ms. Ashmun, “Water equals the playing field.” She mentions that water exercise is great for anyone worried about exercise-related injuries. “In the water you don’t have those kinds of problems. You can do all sorts of scary moves and if you fall nothing happens.”

The Mansion House offers another type of water exercise called Poolates, taught by a certified pilates instructor.

“Poolates simulates moves you would do in a regular pilates class, but you’re not lying down on a mat,” explains Brenda Wallace, health club director and group instructor. “Since it’s not weight-bearing, there’s no pressure on the joints. For seniors who have age-old injuries or arthritis, this feels really good to them.” She adds that many older people find the Mansion House’s pool, which is heated to 83 degrees, especially comfortable for working out or swimming.


Ms. Wallace adds that the Mansion House’s variety of yoga classes are also popular with older members, and she notes that another good option for aging bodies is strength training on circuit equipment. “The machines position the body according to the muscle group,” she says, “They’re easier to control than free weights.”

Yoga classes are also very popular among the senior set at the Workout and the Y. The latter offers a class specifically for older people called Silver Yoga. Instructor Stephanie Mashek says, “It’s created to accommodate everyone with assists or modifications given for different poses depending on people’s limitations. Doing poses that challenge and doing them the safe way allows people to access the fullest expression of poses.”

Ms. Mashek’s training includes a focus on yoga therapeutics. “There’s a lot of emphasis on different issues with the body. Once people start getting older they tend to have physical injuries of some sort.” Accomodations can be made for things like arthritis and osteoporosis, she added.

Silver Yoga’s participants include people in their 50s to 80s and those at all proficiency levels. “The feedback that I get the most is that balance is definitely much better,” Ms. Mashek says. “They feel flexible and stronger.”

At the senior centers

All of the Island’s four councils on aging offer weekly exercise classes. At the Anchors, Edgartown’s senior center, people can chose from yoga with a Kripalu trained instructor, strength training, men’s stretch with popular yoga instructor Megan Grennan, chair pilates, and Salsa dancing.

As with the other senior centers, anyone 55 and older can participate in the classes for a nominal fee. Laurie Schreiber, the Anchors’ director of Senior Services, notes that the classes provide a social outlet as well as exercise, and she encourages people to sign up for blocks of classes.

At the Tisbury Council on Aging, seniors (and anyone else) can take instructor-run classes in gentle yoga and tai chi (both fan tai chi and regular) or they can participate in a Sit and Get Fit class that follows a video. “It’s an excellent exercise for older people who may find a whole hour on their feet too much, says activities director Sandy Pratt. “You get an aerobic work out, stretches, and coordination. That’s a big part in keeping your brain active.”

Personal trainer Katryn Yerdon started teaching strength training at the Up-Island Council on Aging (Howes House) three years ago. Since then she has gained a loyal following and has increased the number of classes from three a week to 10. The downstairs area has now been fitted out as a gym for the classes with dumbells, stability balls, bands, and other props. The center also offers tai chi, yoga, and pilates.

Ms. Yerdon has witnessed great improvement among the seniors she teaches. “The incentive as we get older is to stay healthy and get strong rather than worrying about looks,” she says. “But predominantly, the seniors want to stay mobile and remain independent.

“They inspire me,” she says of her older students. “They are so committed, but they don’t take themselves too seriously. You know that you’re helping them through. To be able to see that and be a part of that is pretty amazing. It’s proof that there’s so much more in life — that age is just a number.”