On The Move

Janie Doolan and Senior Fitness
Trimnastic SeniorsJanie Doolan promotes staying fit at 67 – and beyond


By Tabitha Yang

It’s 9 a.m. on a Wednesday and, although they could be home lingering over a second cup of coffee, the women in Janie Doolan’s Trimnastics class are ready to begin their morning exercises. Clad in T-shirts and loose cotton capris or pants, they follow Doolan’s lead through an hour-long session of stretching, ab work and some light weights, accompanied by classic big band and swing songs such as “Strangers in the Night.”

But this isn’t your typical group of exercising ladies. The youngest woman there is in her 50s, and the oldest is 90.

Doolan herself, at 67, could be Tallahassee’s most flexible grandmother. She still can bend over and touch the floor with the palms of her hands while keeping her legs straight. She has been teaching the thrice-weekly Trimnastics classes for the past 20 years as part of the city’s recreation program at Lafayette Park. She never aspired to be an exercise instructor, but when the former leader of the class decided to move out of town in 1982, Doolan was the first person asked to fill the position.

“They told me I was very good at the exercises because I was limber and flexible, and they thought I could do the class,” said Doolan, who credits the class with building her self-confidence. Before she began teaching, she says, she was very shy. In fact, she said with a smile, “My mother years ago was very shocked to see that I did this. She never dreamed that I would be the type of person to get in front of a crowd and demonstrate and show them how to do things.”

Since she began teaching more than two decades ago, Doolan has had to alter the class and make the exercises a little less
intense. “Over the years, as we’ve all aged, I’ve eliminated a lot of the high impact things and [now] we’re mostly a stretching class,” Doolan said. Despite making the exercises easier, the hour-long class still offers a physical challenge.

Many of the same women exercising with Doolan 20 years ago still are bending and stretching with her today. One of them is Betty Fargus. Although she has a stiff leg now and can do only about half of the exercises, Fargus still faithfully attends the classes. Besides the workout, she loves seeing everyone in the class.

“We’ve gotten real close,” she said of the ladies in the class, adding that they get together to celebrate each others’ birthdays.

Although the class is made up mostly of women, Tom Vickers attends regularly with his wife, Mary Ann. The friendliness of the people in the class was what attracted them when they started a year and a half ago, Mary Ann Vickers said.

When they came for the first time, “immediately people gravitated toward us,” she said. “We felt accepted, and we wanted to come back.

“And we could do it!” she said, smiling. “Nobody told us, ‘No, do it this way,’ or ‘You’re not doing it right.’”

The oldest woman in the class, Gwen Roberts, recently turned 90. She’s nearly as trim and active as Doolan, and said that when she goes for check-ups, her doctor regularly parades her around the waiting room and asks, “How old do you think this lady is?” People always act surprised when they discover her true age, but, Roberts said with a laugh, that could just be because they’re trying to be polite.

Doolan said she enjoys the friendships she has formed with the members of her class.

“Once in a while we get together after class and go to coffee,” she said. “And then there are a few of us that will go out to a movie and go out to eat afterwards. We’ve become good friends as well as exercising.”

The affection and camaraderie is mutual. As longtime friend Fargus put it, “Everyone loves Janie.”

In an age when many seniors would rather stay home than go to an exercise class, Doolan’s work in keeping her class of older people motivated to stay fit is a great accomplishment. The temptation is strong to think that exercise for seniors is pointless, but in fact the reverse is true.

 “Regular exercise improves overall functionality, mentally, emotionally, as well as physically,” said Judy Gempel, a personal trainer at Women’s World who often works with seniors. “The key adjective is ‘regular’ exercise. The payoff can be seen in an improved immune system, reduced stress, better self-esteem and a maintained independence.” Gempel’s words are backed by a recent study completed by Dr. Bob Simons, a health and fitness expert at The Bonsai Spa and Fitness Center in Largo, who designed a study to determine the effects of exercise on seniors.

Simons wanted to compare the effects of strength training and cardiovascular training for seniors. He randomly assigned the 64 participants, ranging from 66 to 96 years old, with an average age of 83.5 years, to three groups: a control group, a cardiovascular group and a strength group. Over the course of 16 weeks, those in the second two groups worked out for 45 minutes, twice a week.

The results showed increased strength, coordination, agility, endurance and flexibility for both groups, suggesting that exercise helps to fight age-related physical decline. The cardiovascular group, whose members used walking as their main form of exercise, showed an 11 percent improvement in flexibility, 13 percent improvement in coordination, 12 percent increase in strength, 6 percent improvement in endurance and a 9 percent increase in agility. Results for the strength group, which emphasized resistance training, were more dramatic, showing even more improvement than the cardiovascular group. The strength group members experienced an average improvement of 33 percent in strength, an 18 percent improvement in coordination, a 14 percent improvement in agility, a 7 percent improvement in endurance and a 10 percent increase in flexibility.

Simply by adding light weights and push-ups into an exercise routine is more beneficial than limiting exercise to a twice-weekly walk down the street or on the treadmill.

 “When you exercise even a minimal amount at the age of 85, you can make some phenomenal gains,” Simons told the Ivanhoe Newswire. During the study, “After about the sixth or seventh week, (participants) had a garage sale, and several walkers and canes were in that garage sale,” Simons said. Lest seniors race too hastily to the gym, Simons does add the precaution that it’s always best to consult with one’s physician first before beginning an exercise regimen. Physicians can help seniors design an exercise routine that takes into account physical limitations or health problems.

Tallahassee seniors who want to start exercising don’t necessarily have to buy a gym membership. Classes like Doolan’s Trimnastics class are available through the Lafayette Park Community Center, and most range in cost from $15-$35 for sessions that take place two to three times a week for 12 weeks. Fall classes begin the week of Sept. 5 and include cardio-kickboxing, yoga and open basketball.

Other Tallahassee community centers also offer exercise classes. The Fourth Avenue Community Center, located at 450 W. Fourth Ave., hosts a free Gospel Aerobics class on Friday evenings. And the Lawrence-Gregory Community Center, located at 1115 Dade St., offers an hour-long senior fitness class on Monday mornings. There is a $5 fee for the eight-week-long, once-a-week class.

For more information, call 891-3946 or  visit www.talgov.com/parks/commcenter.

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