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Move it or lose it, says WNY senior fitness pro

Terry Campagna is among residents at Elderwood Village of Williamsville who gather twice a week to take exercise classes. They used resistance bands, foam noodles and small balls to go through a series of movements on a recent Wednesday to songs that included “Love Potion No. 9,” “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Love Me Do.”

“It’s good for me and I enjoy it,” said Campagna, 88, a retired Erie County Medical Center nurse.

“If you don’t use it, you lose it,” group fitness instructor Jill Bronsky told Campagna and her classmates as she worked right along with them during the hourlong class.

Bronsky, 53, of Amherst, is a pioneer in Western New York senior fitness. She shifted into the field nearly two decades ago, when her kids were little and she’d already launched a business, Kidsmotion, and Fun n Fit in a Bucket, a kit for parents to help preschool-aged children develop kicking, throwing, catching and other basic movement skills. She worked as a wellness director for a physical therapist at the time she discovered she enjoyed working with elders.

That discovery spawned Forward Fitness Inc. (, 639-0566), which specializes in group fitness classes and in-home personal training for those aged 50 to past 100.

“The balance factor is huge. So many kids are quick to get their parents a walker, a cane, but nobody wants to give them fitness instruction,” said Bronsky, who holds a bachelor’s degree in recreation fitness from SUNY Brockport State and a master’s in physical education from Canisius College. She also is a Functional Aging Institute certified trainer.

She and her husband, Sam, a certified public accountant, have two sons, Alexander, 24, and Matthew "M.J.," 19.

Q. What are the three most important things that a person who is growing older can do to stay healthy and fit?

The first thing is walking. Walk more. Do more walking instead of sitting.

Find social and physical fitness programs to get involved in. Social interaction and exercising are really important.

Find places to go to do things. If you want to stay in your house, get out of your house.

Q. How important is it to work your leg muscles?

It’s huge. Kids will come visit their parents … and they’ll never stand with them. They don’t walk with them. They don’t go outside. They should be talking and standing, not sitting all day long. Even those who are younger, who sit at their desks all day long, are setting themselves up for the future. It used to be older people who had trouble sitting so much. Now it’s even the younger people. You should spend 20 minutes sitting, seven minutes standing and three minutes moving around.

Q. What concerns do older folks express about starting to exercise?

That fear of falling is huge. They’ve had a fall and get so nervous about falling again, they don’t want to do anything. They’re muscles are getting weaker. They’re strength is diminishing. Their stability and mobility is getting worse because they’re not doing anything, and their chances of falling increases...

The kids are scared to take them out because their balance is so bad. They can’t get into the car, and they struggle to get up and down the curb. Once you start working on improving strength, improving balance, they can go more places. Kids won’t be as afraid to take mom or dad out. Kids can be the worst. They’ll drop their mom at the front of their grocery store. They should be walking with their parents in to the grocery store, walking around the aisles. Mom should be taking some of the grocery bags, putting things on the shelves. Instead, the kids do everything for them – and a lot of them don’t have lots of time. It’s a lot easier to go get things for mom and dad and take it to them.

Q. So handling these things is an investment?

Yes. Otherwise, the family is going to be spending money on senior homes, older adult homes, doctor’s appointments, rehabilitation. And it’s not only the physical, it’s the psychological. People wait way, way too long when mom and dad are feeling OK but could be better. People sometimes wait to call me until mom or dad are in independent living and they almost can’t stay there anymore. They should have been calling me a year earlier.

"In order for muscles to stay strong, for you to keep your balance, you need to exercise and do physical activity," says Jill Bronsky, owner of Forward Fitness Inc.

Q. When should people – especially if they’ve led busy careers or been active, or caregiving – say, “Now is the time to start getting more fit?”

It’s never too late. They should start now.  ... Personal trainers who work with older adults will focus on functional exercise.

Q. How often should an older person exercise?

They should be involved in physical activity every day, basic things. They should stop sitting so much. They should get on a schedule. I’ll do a time study with people and ask them, “What did you do yesterday? What did you do when you got up in the morning?” Often, they realize they sat all day long, so we get them on a schedule. You don’t want to overwhelm somebody, so you’re not going to start them walking 30 minutes. They start by maybe walking two minutes after they drink coffee. If you can’t do an hour exercise class, stay for 10 minutes, whatever you can get in. Change takes time. It’s not anything that happens overnight. Small increments can turn big. Something’s better than nothing.

Q. How did you approach starting a business like this?

I started with group exercise classes. I went to independent living facilities, older adult homes. I'd give an introductory class and then the places would want it. I've been here at Elderwood forever. When I started, I had cassette tapes. Then I went to CDs. Then I went to the iPod. Now I'm with my iPhone and a wireless speaker. I've always had tons of fitness equipment, too. I would come in with hand weights and body bars and balls. That was the big difference with my program.

Q. What do you call your class?

It's called different things at different places. A lot of places call it Fitness with Jill. That's where I have variety: balance training, strength training, range of motion training, flexibility, cardio, endurance. It covers everything, a full hour of a variety of activities. I'm here in Williamsville twice a week. One class is focused more on strength and balance. We work more on lower body, strength and challenging balance. And the second class, we do more endurance, and work on upper body and lower body. Balance is one thing all of the facilities are looking for.

I give training to staff at some of the facilities about how to start an exercise program.

Q. Where else are you?

Elderwood in Cheektowaga, the Jewish Federation housing, in Wheatfield. Also in peoples' homes. I teach Arthritis Foundation and other classes at Made 2 Move Fitness in Amherst.

Q. When did you start working in homes?

About five years ago. After doing group exercises for so long, I decided to do in-home personal training and small group personal training. The area I really focus on is in home. I suggest twice a week. It makes a big difference compared to once a week. A lot of those clients have had strokes, health issues.

My oldest client is 102. I work with people as young as 50. Most of my people are in their 70s or 80s, people who are trying to stay in their homes as long as they can.

Q. What do you want to tell us about the 102-year-old?

He's great. He was in World War II. He flew a plane. He has a business. He did a lot of different things. He has bad days and good days. When you get older, that's what happens. I would do an obstacle course with him. As time has gone on, he's been more affected by a stroke that he had. His daughter says it's made a difference not just physically but mentally to have him do the activities. It keeps him going.

People always think of exercise as physical – the legs, the arms – but it's mental, too. People don't ask me, "Can you make my brain stronger?" They ask, "Can you make my legs stronger?" "Can you work on my balance?" But exercise really helps mentally.

Q. Tell me about your book, "Keeping your Parents Active & Independent: Simple Ways to Encourage Physical Activity and Exercise."

I've been in the business a long time and felt it was time for me to put information out in the community and let them know there are ways to help keep their parents active and independent.

The book is in production right now. It's in the editing process. They'll be able to order it on my website for $12.99. It will have eight exercises in it. It will talk about walking and exercising mind and body. I have a section in there about physical activity and how kids can do certain things to get their parents moving. The first phase is the sneaky phase, where you might put the garbage can a little bit further away. The second phase is the more intentional phase. Maybe you take a walk to a neighbor's or down the street. The third phase is doing less means more, meaning you're doing less and your parents are doing more. Maybe you take your kids to the community center or ask them to take the grandkids to the zoo. Once they feel comfortable, then you do the exercise phase.

The biggest thing that's missing is motivation. The parents don't have the motivation and as a child you have to come in and help motivate them. Maybe you bring your parents someplace or go places with them…

There are things you can do with your parents and that's the biggest thing. I think so many people just throw their arms up in the air and say, 'There's nothing I can do.'" When you visit mom or dad – do something – even if it's walking in place during commercial breaks of a TV show.

Q. So if you're going to move into older age gracefully, they'd better exercise?

Yes. The problem is that it's not a choice. In order for muscles to stay strong, for you to keep your balance, you need to exercise and do physical activity.


Twitter: @BNrefresh

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