The Importance of Living An Active Life with Emily Johnson, StrongerU Fitness

We recently sat down with Emily Johnson of StrongerU Senior Fitness, an organization that we are partnering with to further enhance our active living services at all Berwick sites. StrongerU Senior Fitness is Canada’s first pre-choreographed Senior Fitness series offering online education and certification in four program types- Cardio, Strength, Stretch, and Circuit.We discovered Emily & StrongerU at the BCSLA Conference in Whistler in September 2019 and knew we had to collaborate with her & launch her program company-wide. Emily gets into detail about the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle, debunks some common myths about aging and exercise and shares important factual information that we all should know when it comes to seniors and fitness. 

Q) What is StrongerU Senior Fitness?

  • “For the past 10 years working with seniors, every year I had a greater realization about a missed opportunity in senior fitness. So many of the recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals that I came into contact with had either no senior fitness certification and training or they had the training, but were finding it difficult to bridge the gap between what they learned in their course and what to actually teach in their senior fitness class. This problem was the reason why I founded StrongerU Senior Fitness. StrongerU Senior Fitness is Canada’s first pre-choreographed senior fitness series. That means that our instructors take our certification, but then they are given 30-minutes of monthly content every single month so they know exactly what they should be teaching. This ensure that anyone taking a StrongerU Senior Fitness class can be sure that their getting a quality, safe, and effective senior fitness workout that is going to help them achieve Canada’s physical activity guidelines.”

Q) Why is it important for seniors to exercise?

  • “Exercise is important for everyone, but my mission is to focus on the importance of exercise for seniors because of the huge impact it can make on their health. Recently ParticipACTION released their 2019 report card on physical activity for adults. They gave Canadian adults an F for achieving 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per week. They found that only 15% of individuals 65 to 79 were achieving this guideline. This number is pretty alarming because our population as a whole is aging. With aging comes natural declines- 1% per year in strength, decrease in aerobic capacity, decrease in brain matter, but most of these can be maintained and in some cases gained through exercise”

Q) Can you walk us through the intellectual benefit of exercise

  • “Brain and body are not separate- when you’re exercising the brain needs to send and receive signals about what is happening in order for that exercise to continue. In the most recent World Health Organization guidelines for the risk reduction of dementia they listed physical activity interventions as the best thing you can do to stay sharp. Being physically active was more powerful than even brain games and apps that claim they will help keep you brain sharp. Its also better than supplements that claim they support health brain function. One of my favourite research studies- one group that did aerobics 3x per week versus group that doe stretching – 2% in brain mass increase in hippocampi for the aerobics group vs. a 1.4% decrease in mass for the stretching group. Stretching has its place in exercise, but currently way too much of it is being done, because fitness and recreation professional may not feel educated or confident enough to try the exercises that can really make a difference. This is where StrongerU Senior Fitness bridges the gap between exercise science knowledge and practical implementation to give instructors exactly what they should be teaching.”

Q) Are there any other benefits people should know about exercising? Mention the social, emotional, and other benefits.

  • “Emotional- Recently there has been a lot of talk about depression in older adults. Research has shown that 1 in 3 adults in the community feels some sort of depression and loneliness, 1 in 5 in retirement. Research has been showing once again that being physically active might be one of the most powerful antidotes against depression.”
  • “Social- Research shows that those exercising in a group tend to be more committed and accountable as a result of the group dynamic. Group fitness classes work together like a team to reach their goals.”
  • “A sense of purpose- in StrongerU Senior Fitness we have Ambassadors. These are seniors who model the behaviors of active living and help to support and motivate their peers to do the same. They may help welcome new members, help with set up, answer questions, etc.”

Q) Should seniors be doing certain kinds of exercise?

  • “150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity in bouts of 10 minutes or more. It’s really important to pay attention to the small details in the guidelines. Its not just 150 minutes of any activity. It’s aerobic activity that gets the ehart and lungs pumping at a moderate to vigour pace and it has to last longer that 10 minutes. That being said, for someone who has never exercised it’s ok to work up to 10 minutes over time, but there needs to be progression in exercise to see and continue to see the benefits.”
  • “Muscle and bone strengthen activities 2 days per week of all the major muscle groups. The major muscles groups are the muscles of the arms, back, chest, abdomen, and legs. These groups are made up of very specific muscle like the biceps in the arms. In order to work the biceps there a specific move that should be completed. This is another area that I saw a lot of recreation professionals struggle with. Even for those who had taken some sort of senior exercise course, there is so much information being crammed into your head that you only retain a small amount. I found they weren’t sure about what exercises to use for which muscles. Again, this where I’ve built StrongerU Senior fitness to show you exactly what to teach, so you know its going to be safe and effective for your seniors.”
  • “Balance activities to increase balance and decrease falls. Many think of this guidelines as standing on one foot or walking a line one foot in front of the other, but functional balance work is often achieved through achieving the first two guidelines. Walking is a great falls prevention activity and will also help you reach your 150 minutes of aerobic activity. Sit to Stands of the chair are a great exercise to strength the muscles of the legs which again help to prevent falls. Balance positions like standing on one leg can help to test and measure improvements in balance, but if you practice standing on one leg, you’ll just be good at standing on one leg. Coordination drills and games also enhance balance. Games like ladder ball and bean bag toss both enhance hand eye coordination and can help improve balance.”

Q) Can the wrong exercise be dangerous for seniors? 

  • “Older adults are know for having ailments such as arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, but everything I just listed is actually more associated with inactivity versus aging. There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about aging and exercise. Many adults believe at a certain age, you’re too old to exercise. Well-meaning kids who tell their mom or dad, take it easy, don’t overdo it can be doing more harm than good. What it comes down to is the less we move the less we are able to move. Part of my mission with StrongerU Senior Fitness is to help educate caregivers, recreation and fitness professionals and even seniors on the benefits of exercise and how its never too late to start. The research shows us that older exercisers can see improvements in strength and abilities similar to younger exercisers. I’m sure you’ve all seen the stories on CTV, good morning America, Facebook of seniors running marathons, doing cross fit, etc. The average person won’t go to that extent, but it shows age is just a number when it come to what our muscles are capable of doing.”

Q) What can caregivers, senior living providers, and seniors’ themselves, do to help seniors stay active?

  • “Walking is a highly effective and accessible activity that good for the whole body. If nothing else, start walking 30 minutes every day. Try to increase pace, distance, time as the activity gets easier.”
  • “Joining a community centre- not just for the physical benefits, but for the social, emotional, and all the other benefits that come with it.”
  • “Taking a look at senior living- a lot of seniors are weary about senior living. They picture the nursing home where everyone is sleeping and to put it bluntly waiting to die. This is a huge misconception and an unfortunate misconception because I have story after story of seniors who moved into senior living reluctantly and then said they wish they had they did it sooner. Senior Living organizations like Berwick provide opportunities to stay engaged physically, socially, intellectual, and more.”

 Q) How do you motivate a senior who doesn’t want to exercise?

  • “Provide Education about exercise and its benefits.”
  • “Ensure you’ve got engaging class components- music, having fun, interesting movements. In StrongerU Senior Fitness, the program is artfully designed to keep participants engaged physically and intellectual with fun choreography and interesting movement combinations.”
  • “Think of it like sales. You have to find that thing that relates to the person you’re trying to sell. If it’s important for them to stay intellectually sharp, tell them all the ways exercise helps them to achieve this.”

We are thrilled to be partnering with Emily Johnson and StrongerU Senior Fitness, and to be able to offer such a fantastic program to our Residents. Congratulations to Lisa Moorehead, who is the Active Living Manager at Berwick Comox Valley for successfully completing her StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructor Certification!

Stay tuned for more details to come about how the program is rolling out at all our sites.