COVID and keeping fit

Seniors fitness at Carleton has adapted to COVID exigencies.
Photo: Tom Sherwood

By Tom Sherwood

I see a lot of Glebe people in little squares on my laptop these days. Some are old friends from Carleton University or from St. Giles and Glebe-St. James churches. Some are neighbours. Some are new friends I have never met in person. We Zoom-exercise together three times a week.

The pandemic changed many things including family visits, religious gatherings and education. In addition to my family life, I have three public roles: United Church minister, university teacher and fitness instructor. It has been interesting to lead worship in new ways and connect with students and colleagues remotely, but the fitness field has been most fascinating.

Fitness instruction is not closely related to my ordination or PhD, but it does involve pedagogy and pastoral sensitivity. It is more obviously related to my earlier life as a university athlete and coach of competitive teams. I played university football and basketball during my B.A. and M.A. years at York and Carleton and then went into volunteer coaching. About 20 years ago, I reconnected with Greg Poole, the director of fitness programs at Carleton. We had played basketball against each other years earlier. I helped Poole design a pre-season fitness program for golfers, became interested in kinesiology and fitness, took the Fitness Ontario Leadership Program and began leading fitness classes.

By 2018 or so, Carleton Fitness was asking me to do two things: lead fitness classes for an Alzheimer day program and lead “stretch and strength” classes for the 50s Plus or Senior Ravens population. Stretch and strength classes are not aerobic. The curriculum is designed to strengthen and stretch muscles in all the major muscle groups in order to improve mobility, flexibility, balance and strength. Along the way, I took Osteoporosis Canada Bone Fit training. My classes are also recognized as Heart Wise classes by the Ottawa Heart Institute. In fact, every class I lead includes at least two or three former heart-surgery patients. Some participants were referred by other medical professionals and physiotherapists for ongoing wellness beyond their initial schedule of rehabilitation; others simply work out regularly for their own reasons.

Zoom fitness classes are booming.

My last pre-pandemic class at Carleton was on March 13, 2020, with about 20 participants. We paused for a month but reopened in April with me leading classes from my home using a Zoom connection. It worked. I had equipment at home, and some participants did too. But most did not, so I adjusted the workouts to include more body-weight exercises and isometrics. When I realized that many people had resistance bands, acquired in earlier physiotherapy, I included more bands exercises. I encouraged people who didn’t have “weights” (dumbbells) around the house to find “weight” such as canned goods or books. With a lot of forgiveness and good will, the participants provided feedback and encouragement, and we developed an effective program.

Two years later, I am back on campus leading the classes, joined by a few participants who prefer to get out of the house and use university equipment. But if I have five or six people with me in the room, I have 20 to 30 more people in the Zoom connection, and – since we record and post the classes – many more tune in later for a workout at their convenience. This term, my classes have had participants in Europe, Israel, Florida, Minnesota and British Columbia as well as around Ottawa.

With this popularity, Carleton cannot drop the Zoom option for older adults, so the Senior Ravens program goes on without any breaks. I’ll be leading the hybrid program from Carleton Athletics in May and June, then Zoom-only from my home in July and August, then return to campus in September.

I am surprised and delighted to be doing this in my retirement years. The classes are extremely meaningful to the participants. They arrive in the program feeling fragile, concerned about fitness and wellness, mobility and autonomy. They learn safe and effective technique, but they also learn that they are not alone. They experience progress in the dynamics of stretching, balance, strength and endurance. But they also experience community. As we work out together, we also laugh together.

Tom Sherwood is an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University, a United Church minister and former university chaplain.

Share this