Three times a week, Arnie Nickel leads a 45-minute exercise session for seniors on Zoom, a virtual-meeting app. Participants are enthusiastic and their numbers are growing.
It all began eight or nine years ago, when a small group of seniors at Nutana Park Mennonite Church in Saskatoon started an exercise group under the Saskatoon-based Forever . . . in Motion program for older adults.
When COVID-19 brought an abrupt end to their regular exercise sessions in March, June Giles’s husband Howard invited participants to an online coffee hour using Zoom as their platform.
Nickel is one of several trained exercise leaders in the group. When he and his wife Lorene participated in one of the virtual coffee hours, group members suggested that he should resume leading exercises online. He was willing, so the virtual exercise sessions began with him as sole leader.
“I haven’t changed it at all,” he says. “I run a 45-minute program as I always have, concentrating on stretching, muscle strength and balance. We do a lot of on-the-spot activity.”
Participants are all over 65 years of age, and some are in their 90s. Most were regular participants before the pandemic, but newcomers have joined, including some friends or relatives from British Columbia and Ontario.
Nickel says that when the group started, 75 percent of participants belonged to the Nutana Park congregation, with the remaining quarter coming from the neighbouring community. Now the numbers are reversed. Only about 25 percent of participants are part of the host congregation, while three-quarters of them live in the community.
Attendance on Zoom “has grown beyond anything we could have imagined,” says Giles. Starting with about 20 participants, the group has grown to average 60.
“The people really want it, and it’s so good for them,” says Nickel, a retired physician.
Many participants are widows living alone. Nickel says that he cautions everyone to exercise with care and always within the limits of their abilities. A fall that could land them in hospital would be devastating.
He also recognizes that regular exercise is good for him personally. In fact, watching himself lead the exercises on Zoom has helped Nickel improve his own balance.
“You have to [exercise] often if you don’t want aging to catch up with you,” says Giles. “Doing it alone in your basement is just not motivating. You tend to put exercise off. But this great group is enough to even motivate me to work at it.”
While some people are just there for the exercise, others, especially those who live alone, appreciate the virtual coffee time and visiting that follows.
“It’s a very strong social group,” says Nickel. The visiting “is really helpful for them.”
Women have always outnumbered men in the group, but an unexpected benefit to exercising online has been that a number of spouses of female participants have been exercising along with their wives.
“It will be interesting to see if they will come to church once the social distancing is over,” says Giles.
The group meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. Participation is free of charge.
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