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Strong for Life:

Exercise program aimed at helping seniors improve physical fitness

January 20, 2011
By LINDA COMINS For Prime Times

A scientifically-based exercise program is being used by area senior citizens to strengthen their bodies and to help them maintain their independence.

As part of its mission to assist older persons and people with disabilities, Faith in Action Caregivers of Wheeling offers the Strong for Life program at area senior residences. Jenna Derrico, a Wheeling Jesuit University graduate and VISTA worker for Faith in Action Caregivers, is coordinating and revitalizing the Strong for Life program, which was developed at Boston University.

Derrico is recruiting and training volunteers to be leaders of Strong for Life sessions. She also is coordinating the program at participating facilities and establishing new sites.

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STEPHANIE?ANDERSON, a senior majoring in pre-medicine at West Liberty University, leads a Strong for Life exercise program for residents at Brook Park Place apartments in Wheeling.

''A few years ago, we had a lot of sites going," she said. "This year, we're putting a focus on revitalizing old sites like Brook Park Place (in Wheeling) and starting new sites at senior high-rises and congregations."

Developing programs at new sites depends a lot on recruiting and training volunteers as leaders, she said. "It depends on getting volunteers and participants," she said.

Area adults can become Strong for Life volunteers and receive the necessary training through Faith in Action. Potential volunteers may call Derrico at the Faith in Action Caregivers office, 304-243-5420, or contact her by e-mail at

"We've had success revitalizing this site (Brook Park Place). We're trying to start a new group downtown (in Wheeling). We're working on revitalizing (a project) at the Bellaire Senior Center," Derrico said.

Faith in Action Caregivers has been presenting Strong for Life for a few years, ever since the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded a pilot project in 2002-04. The foundation provided some of the initial funding for the exercise program as part of the services offered to older homebound care recipients participating in the Faith in Action Initiative.

According to the Strong for Life website, "Strong for Life is a strengthening exercise program designed by physical therapists for home use by older adults to improve strength, balance and overall health. Therabands (elastic resistive bands) are used to provide force for strengthening muscles. This program targets specific muscles that are important in every-day movements such as getting out of a chair and walking."

During each session, which lasts 30-45 minutes, the leader and the senior residents perform strengthening exercises as a DVD is played, showing an instructor teaching the exercises to a group of seniors. The routine begins with a warm-up, is followed by various exercises and concludes with a "cool down" activity.

Stephanie Anderson, a senior majoring in pre-medicine at West Liberty University, leads twice-weekly Strong for Life sessions at Brook Park Place. Anderson, a Bloomingdale resident, has been leading the exercise program in the building's community room at 10 a.m. on Mondays and Thursdays since Oct. 8. About nine or 10 residents attend the sessions on a regular basis, and other tenants at the high-rise complex have expressed interest in the program, she said.

Anderson, who is a member of the honors program at West Liberty, said she became involved after Derrico spoke to the honors students about the importance of Strong for Life, Faith in Action Caregivers and voluntary service in general.

Regarding the reaction from Brook Park residents, Anderson said, "They come up and thank me for doing this program because they don't get out much, especially in the colder winter months. They have problems in certain areas that they want to strengthen."

For some residents, "their legs aren't that strong or they have had some weakness in an area that they want to improve," Anderson said.

Strong for Life had been offered under the auspices of Faith in Action at Brook Park Place previously. "When we restarted the program, several of the ladies came back. They are glad it started again," Derrico said, "One of the trainers for the last one is now a participant."

Anderson added, "They're very good with the exercise bands and getting them in place." During the sessions, she said, "If they're having trouble, I'll pause it (the DVD) and come back and help them know what to do."

The exercise bands are in different colors, each signifying a level of increasing resistance, Anderson said. For example, the yellow band is the easiest to use and represents the lowest level of resistance. The black band is the toughest one to use, she said.

"When it (a particular exercise band) gets easier to use, it's time to move up" to a higher level of resistance, Anderson explained. Each participant works at his or her own pace, so that some in a class may be using yellow bands while others have moved up to red bands or even higher levels.

Locally, the program uses five levels of increasing difficulty: yellow, red, green, blue and black, Derrico said. "We find those five are helpful."

People who have physical limitations "do only the exercises that are suited or they don't use the bands," Anderson related. For instance, some of the participants at Brook Park are able to use the exercise bands for both upper- and lower-body exercises, while some can utilize the bands for only one type of exercise or not use them at all.

"It is very customizable to their abilities," Anderson said. "Even in the video, some people are doing modified exercises. We have people with all those abilities."

As the Strong for Life website notes: "Each exercise on the video is scalable in difficulty and the instructions on how to modify the exercises to suit different strength and functional levels are provided verbally by the instructor as well as shown visually by the elders in the video."

The video has a real-life component in that the instructor is her 80s and the exercisers are all senior citizens, some of whom have physical limitations, Derrico pointed out.

"Some of our participants are 90 or older," Derrico said, adding, "They seem like the most energetic and lively of them."

Derrico said the Strong for Life program was developed at Boston University by the Roybal Center for the Enhancement of Late-Life Function, with support from the National Institute on Aging. Additional support came through a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which also provided start-up support for many Faith in Action programs across the nation.

"At the Roybal Center, they found what we consider are effects of aging are really effects of inactivity," Derrico commented. "It is one of the major dangers for older people. Exercise is a way for them to maintain their independence."

In that regard, Strong for Life fits with Faith in Action Caregivers' mission to provide voluntary services to older persons and people with disabilities in Ohio, Marshall and Belmont counties that allow them to maintain their independence, Derrico said.

"This program was designed to be very safe," Derrico commented. "It is customizable to their physical abilities and builds gradually to develop their muscles and flexibility."

Strengthening muscles and improving flexibility helps people "get in and out of cars, walk on uneven surfaces, maintain balance, go up and down stairs, reach into cupboards - things you need to do to maintain independence," Derrico said.

Derrico said some of the participants have said they noticed their blood sugar readings have gone down to safer levels since they have begun the Strong for Life exercises or that they are bothered less by joint pain. "We have people telling us of those effects," she said.

The Strong for Life program encourages participants to pay attention to their every-day activities and to build upon those skills. "You might become aware that you're much more active than you think," Derrico said.

"We hope that all these participants are finding ways to be healthy and active when they aren't with us on Mondays and Thursdays," Derrico said, referring to the Brook Park group.



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