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North Tonawanda gym proves you're never too old to exercise

Before & After Fitness Center General Manager Joe Hanula spends part of some workdays visiting senior centers. He often starts his presentations with this question: By a show of hands, whose best years are in front of them and whose best years are behind them?

"It's a very impactful statement because no one wants to feel like they're done," Hanula said. "I want to encourage them they have time left and can create a really good life if they don't give in to inactivity."

Dozens of seniors who live in and around the North Tonawanda gym got the message. They pack nine senior fitness classes each week.

"The key to life is to keep moving as you get older," said Bob Cochran, former executive director of the Buffalo office of the American Diabetes Association, who takes four or five classes a week with his wife, Terri, a retired social worker.

Those over 65 make up roughly half the members of the 4,000-square-foot center on Wheatfield Street near Twin City Highway. Between a pair of recent Monday morning Senior Total Body and SilverSneakers classes, folks in that age group shared hostas, talked gardening, and made plans for lunch and a hiking trip later that day.

"It's social hour for sure," said Rob Albert, who owns the gym. "The health insurers say it's just as important to get people up, get 'em here, and back home as it is to exercise. That activity every day is beneficial – and when you're socializing, that helps the body and the mind, too."

Hanula, 40, a one-time general manager of the former Fitness 19 in North Tonawanda, opened his own gym, 500 Fitness, about four years ago. He began to tilt toward the older set when Summit Fitness Center closed in Wheatfield a year later and began to head his way.

Group fitness instructors Holly Kerr and John "Rock Man" Johnson help lead the senior classes and more than a dozen others each week.

The SilverSneakers contingent includes Diane Willmott, Mary Beth Granieri, Lamberti Buicki, Muriel Rua and Beverly Wagner. Most of them have been with Hanula and his instructors since the summer of 2015.

"I come in here to work on my guns," Wilmott said, 71, as she flexed a bicep. "We're tough ladies." The Niagara Falls resident said she's lost 20 pounds and gone down two clothing sizes since she began exercising regularly after retiring four years ago.

"We're healthy. We're recycled teenagers," Granieri said.

Before & After will host an open house Summer Bash from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. It will include fitness center tours and 15-minute sample-sized classes for visitors to try. For more information, visit

"I remember coming out of a terrible corporate meeting and asking myself, 'Why can't I make a gym for about 500 people?' That was what started the whole thing," Joe Hanula said about creating Fitness 500 four years ago. He has since rebranded to Before & After Fitness and moved the gym into its current location at 525 Wheatfield St. in North Tonawanda. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Why did Hanula leave a bigger gym that once had 5,000 members for a smaller one?

"I remember coming out of a terrible corporate meeting and asking myself, 'Why can't I make a gym for about 500 people?' That was what started the whole thing."

Q: What is your fitness philosophy?

When you're a big gym, you basically assign dollar values on people, not on personalities. That's the general problem with a volume-based concept. It's great financially, sure, but it wasn't satisfying at all. Like every small business owner, I've pretty much sacrificed everything to make this thing works. My wife, Kristen, has put up with a lot to help me chase this. The seniors also understand that [and provide helpful advice].

Q: Talk about your classes.

We have yoga, bootcamp, boxing, Zumba, PiYo, senior classes, a mobility class, tai chi, TRX, and we also do strength training days. Every one of our classes are all ages. Some seniors participate in our bootcamp and more aggressive classes. Our senior classes are our biggest classes for sure, at 20-plus. Most of our evening classes run around 10 to 15 people, which allows us as instructors to engage a lot more and make sure that people who are learning technique are learning correctly.

Q: What are the senior classes like?

Before & After Fitness accepts health insurance plan benefits. As a result, most members 65 and older get to take group fitness classes and use free weights and cardio equipment for free.
(Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The 9 o'clock is typically built into circuits. We use the whole room. You're upright and standing or moving around the room the whole time, so it's definitely for more active seniors. The 11 o'clock SilverSneakers are for people who are not quite as fit or have mobility issues, or can't stand up quite as long. We do a lot of seated exercises in that class. We have two straight aerobics classes, those 1980s kind of classes that have always been around. Then we do the Zumba, more dance-based aerobics.

Q: Can you talk about an impressive older members?

One of our members came to us because she had fallen down and it was a bit of a scare. She's progressed from barely being able to get out of her car to participating in high-intensity bootcamp classes. Very impressive.

Q: For those who are older, and who haven't exercised regularly in years, what key steps do you recommend folks take when it comes to starting an exercise program?

Start with at least one 10-minute walk per day and try to build up to at least three. … When you walk in here, the hardest part is over, just getting the nerve to come into something scary or foreign, and give it a shot. People are always going to be afraid of change.

Q: Can you talk generally about cost?

We don't do yearly contracts here. It's month-to-month. Rates are $19.99 for a gym membership and $29.99 with unlimited classes. Personal training rates are $30 for a half-hour and there are promotional rates. It's all on the website. We do carry all the insurances, so for most of the seniors, their gym memberships are free.


Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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