Strong Bones, Strong Bonds

Age doesn’t count in this class, but getting fit for life does

By Elena Murphy

They are grandmothers and great-grandmothers, but when the opening bars of the song “Y.M.C.A.” start to thump from the stereo in the corner of Beverley Ikier’s Osteofitness class, all these women are doing is getting fit for life.

“I’ll have you know, some of my students have driven Harleys,” Ikier smiles as the women begin flexing their wrists. This gets laughs from around the room. She says, “I’m not kidding. I’ve also taught some ex-Playboy bunnies.” Bigger laughs and a few names are tossed around as the women lean into their next stretch. This is not an ordinary exercise program.

For instance, they seem to all know each other, and even if they don’t, they often are often in similar circumstances. They want to maintain their strength and mobility, and many of them are caregivers to spouses or adult children. The class is open to all seniors and so far women have responded. They come to the class from Lexington, Reading, Wellesley and elsewhere for this class, usually twice a week.

The jokes fly as the women stomp and stretch to the music. They continuously re-form their rows to face Ikier at all times, not an easy task as she moves all over the room. One of the exercisers, an art teacher named Joan belts out the repetitions as Ikier strides across the room in sparkly eye shadow and sleek laceless sneakers to check on a student who needs a little help with her form.

The class has been held at different locations, and is currently at First Baptist Church in Lexington Center. There are about 30 students in the class, ranging in age from late 50s to 90. They comment throughout the class making humorous references to their age, exercise and the challenges they face each day. As they flex on floor mats and stretch around an exercise ball, one jokes, “Our mothers wouldn’t like a picture of this!”

“Aging used to be about being dependent,” says Ikier. “This is a 180 degree educational turn for many of these women. That’s the hardest part; but if someone starts this fitness program in their 70s, they’re gliding into their 80s like it was nothing.”

 

“They are more committed to fitness than a lot of 30-year-olds,” she says.

In fact, for all the emphasis gyms put on “steel” and “iron,” Ikier says, a lot of younger people work out only to tone themselves enough to change the way they look. That’s not the goal of her class.

Ikier says she’s pushing her students beyond conditioning muscles. “I want them to be a little uncomfortable,” she says. “I want the muscle cell pulling the bone cell so hard that the bone has to become denser as a defense.” She says her approach is working. No one in her class has fallen and broken a hip even outside class, and two people are now off high blood-pressure medication. “And these women’s posture is amazing,” she says.

The class seems to like her vigorous expectations. One student, who’s had two hip replacements, says she’s seen first hand how increasing the weight that she lifts pays off. She demonstrates how she can push herself up out of a chair, which requires lifting more than the two-pound weights that seniors often stick to, she says. She’s working back to lifting 7-lb hand weights and is doing modified versions of the class’s floor exercises.

Ikier, who’s a former registered nurse, is used to tailoring exercises for each person. She runs the Ikier Wellness Center in Burlington, which offers massage therapy, exercise classes, and alternative approaches to pain reduction. She’s been studying ways to make the whole body healthy.

For instance, she’s introduced the class to body tapping, from her studies of “Eastern disciplines.” A person taps parts of his or her body to help an organ or a whole system, such as the lymph nodes. When she surveyed the class, the women said they’d like to do more body tapping even more, so Ikier includes it throughout the class and encourages them to do it whenever they feel pain in a certain area.

“This is straight from Cirque du Soleil,” Ikier announces as the women lift ankle weights and stretch around red and purple exercise balls. Ikier says that through her work with the Arthritis Foundation, she’s found the right-sized exercise balls that can deliver the same effect on the women’s muscles as water exercises. The women also do floor mat stretches specifically to be able to get down on the floor and up again at home.

For a lot of these women, this class is time to focus on their own wellbeing. Their stretches are undoing the shortening of muscles after years of wearing high heels and girdles and enabling the women to reclaim their own body strength, Ikier says.

And they’re often finding benefits beyond immediate health. Fay English and Fran Coscia, two Lexington residents arrive early for the 9 a.m. class. The “wake up crew” as they call themselves are in their 70s and 80s, respectively. They catch up with each other before the stretching begins. “I met Fay through the class,” Fran says, “We’re buddies.” She points out this class provides an opportunity to “form friendships” which does not always happen “later in life.”

Everyone in class is part of the community. If someone’s misses a session, Ikier calls her. If someone’s out for a while for their own health or because they’re caring for someone else, Fran picks out a card and has everyone sign it. She sends it out, encouraging the person to come back to class, so she knows she’s missed.

Fran, who was out the week before I visited the class, says she told Ikier, “I don’t want a card!”

Ikier says she likes to find a role for each person in the class. Fran sends the cards, Joan is the unofficial “counter,” and another student Paula has introduced lemon slices to the pitcher of water everyone drinks from during their breaks.

The class builds a good rhythm while the Rolling Stones strut through “Honky Tonk Woman.” Ruth Gordon, a Lexington resident who’s 90, and sports lipstick that complements her dangling earrings, says that she has a “greater awareness of her physicality,” because she joined the class. Edith Diosys, in her late 80s, says she’s “looser” and has “no pain” in her joints, a “big plus at my age.”

Ikier asks the women as they walk toe to heel in a straight line to do the exercise again, but with their eyes closed. She says, “Now, when a police officer pulls you over and asks you to walk in straight line, you can ask, with eyes open or closed?” She says it’s good to practice balancing without relying on vision.

Then Ikier challenges the group to identify what they’ve been doing at home to improve their own balance. One volunteers that she’s carried laundry down stairs while holding the railing. Ikier reminds students to wear “shoes with ties” on at home, rather than flip-flops. “After all more injuries happen in the home than on the Adirondack Trail,” says Ikier, to which one student chuckles, “That’s because we spend a lot more time at our homes than out hiking.”

There’s often a purpose to the banter that Ikier strikes up during class. She not only observes her students’ physical form, but she also does memory checks. She jokes with students about their abdominal muscles “crying wolf, as in Aesop’s fable,” during one stretch and describes another position as similar to one in the painting, “Christina’s World” by Andrew Wyeth. I try to recall what the painting looks like, but the women all smoothly stretch their legs then twist their upper bodies on their mats.

“Anybody have calcium today?” Ikier calls out as the women do chorus kicks during the song, “Just a Gigolo.” A few people mention macaroni and cheese, as well as kale. “For breakfast?” a few wonder. “Always the skinny ones,” another mutters theatrically. Ikier asks, “What’s a source of calcium and vitamin D?” “Salmon” is one response, to which she nods, saying it’s great to get vitamins in any form, but it’s good to have a natural source, too.

Ikier means business when it comes to calcium. Occasionally, she organizes a “Calcium Café” where the class brings dishes they’ve made that include the bone-building mineral. (No calorie counting necessary.) The church staff prepares the dishes and places them on tables set with china plates. The students love it, says Ikier, and the event is open to family and friends, too.

She asks one student about her homemade kale soup, and points out that though dairy products are the first source of calcium people think of, there are many sources for those who cannot have dairy. Ikier also has arranged for seminars with experts who come in to talk to the women about nutrition and osteoporosis, heart health, and vitamins.

As the class winds down, the women walk away with more than toned muscles and stronger bones. Some make plans to go out after the class as they grab a cup of water and put away their hand weights. As Fran Coscia, puts it, this class really “hits the spot and keeps you young.”

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