Living well

Exercise program is creating communities of healthy, happy elders

Walter Kearney, 81, of Chelsea, Vt., offers this simple response when asked about his involvement in the Strong Living Program: “It’s a no-brainer. You know it’s going to be good for you.”

Kearney is among the 2,721 older adults who have participated in the community-based exercise program that was developed at Tufts. The Strong Living Program not only demonstrates that exercise can improve the health and well being of seniors, but that activities begun at the grassroots level can have a significant and lasting impact.

Jennifer Layne, right, works with Marilyn Suszek in the Strong Living Program. © Kathleen Dooher

Jennifer Layne, an exercise physiologist, created the Strong Living Program in 1995 based on research done at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts and with the support of a few committed individuals and elder service organizations. Layne, now a doctoral student at the Friedman School, began her career at Tufts as a research assistant in the HNRCA’s Nutrition, Exercise Physiology and Sarcopenia Laboratory. Layne works with Dr. Carmen Castaneda Sceppa, co-director of the Strong Living Program.

What makes the Strong Living Program special is its reliance on volunteers—a network of committed people throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. The programs all take place in donated space, and many instructors volunteer their time.

Layne is an extraordinary volunteer. For several years, she coordinated the program from her home. “This is my hobby,” she admits. “Some people garden. I start exercise programs.”

Since those early days, the program has grown from five sites and 50 participants to such a magnitude that “we can’t meet the demand,” says Layne.

Its popularity, to use Walter Kearney’s language, is a no-brainer. The Strong Living Program makes older adults feel better both physically and psychologically. The focus is on strength training using free weights and body weight; balance exercises to improve agility and decrease the likelihood of falls and flexibility exercises to enhance joint mobility and reduce the risk of injury. Participants, who use ankle weights and dumbbells, take the one-hour class twice a week for 12-week sessions.

The priority from the start has been to make this exercise program accessible to older adults, so classes are held in councils on aging, community centers, outpatient clinics and church basements. In most cases, the ankle weights and dumbbells are purchased by sponsors, thus making the program free for participants or for a modest donation. With help from donors and small grants, Layne says, “You can start an exercise program with weights for 12 older adults for $600—a small investment that lasts a lifetime.”

Class members range in age from 50 to 98. Mary Hyvonen, 59, of Auburn, N.H., has been taking the class for more than three years. “The main reason I went is because my bone density test showed osteopenia, [decreased bone density],” she explains. Not only has Hyvonen’s osteopenia gotten better, but she notes a difference when she carries groceries, not to mention the social benefits.

Hyvonen’s instructor, Jean Jacques, says class members form their own community: “When somebody is missing from class, people check up on each other. The program becomes another internal support, and [class members] form new friendships.”

Program leaders say they get as much out of the class as the participants. Joyce Bouchard, who is 70, has led more than 10 sessions. “I’m as excited as I was four years ago,” she says. “I feel more confident, and I feel better about myself.”

Says Jacques, “The energy the seniors have around you is so refreshing. They are such role models. They inspire me.”

Layne describes the program leaders as “the heart and soul of the program,” and indeed the instructors are part of system of training and oversight. More than 350 leaders have been certified to teach the program.

Rfegional coordinators—health professionals who do site visits to ensure trainers are teaching the program correctly—are designated for each region. “That’s how we maintain quality in a large network,” Layne says.

Certainly the Tufts name is important. “This is viewed as a Tufts program,” says Layne. “It gives it credibility.”

“Our goal is a national program. We hope to be in every state,” Layne says. And why not? This program is a cost-effective model that promotes physical activity in a population that might not otherwise get exercise.