Fitness instructor Jamie Allen, top row, second square from right, waves to participants in the free Balance Fitness classes offered online by Haliburton Highlands Health Services during pandemic gathering restrictions. The classes can be attended by anyone of any fitness level or physical ability, with modifications made to meet the needs of all participants. /Screenshot

Seniors finding balance in fitness during Friday group

By Sue Tiffin

For three years, Jim Hicks has been enjoying Balanced Fitness classes – a program that combines gentle seated and standing strength, balance and movement exercises – in the auditorium of Minden’s Hyland Crest. The classes are important for Hicks, who has a drop foot and wears a brace, and wants to be extra cautious when walking, especially in the winter.

“I am 90 now, and for sure, I want to do all I can to prevent a fall,” he said. “Half of [the class] is done from a chair, and then if you are able, the second half is standing. I usually end up doing half the standing portion while sitting. There is no pressure – you just do what you can.”

Before most people had ever heard of COVID-19, regular one-hour Balanced Fitness classes offered through Haliburton Highlands Health Services took place twice-weekly in Minden, Haliburton and Wilberforce bringing participants together for a free exercise class to help maintain health and improve strength and balance to prevent falls, but also to feel good during a social event.

“Some days we would have five individuals and other days we would have 30,” said Jamie Allen-Russell, the class instructor for more than two years now. “Numbers [of participants] were growing quickly at the Minden location prior to the pandemic.”

And then, when the world shut down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus, so too did in-person classes that seniors in the community had relied on, creating a gap for participants who benefitted from the social and physical aspects of the classes at a time when staying home meant they might be feeling lonelier and less active.

“As a community support service provider we recognize the community’s need for social and physical engagement – they are key components to health and well-being,” said Allen-Russell. “Individuals in the community were missing their weekly exercise routine, their social gathering and their motivation to get out and get involved.”

And so, in the fall last year, classes resumed in a way they never had before – online.

“Individuals were getting used to the ‘new norm’ and how things worked virtually,” said Allen-Russell. “Phone calls were made and emails were sent out about the possibility of resuming our balanced fitness class but the classes would have to occur virtually.”

Things started off slow, said Allen-Russell, with just one to three participants, but each week more participants have joined in.

“Connectivity is an issue for many seniors in our community – both with respect to access to devices and basic internet as well as comfort level,” said Allen-Russell. “We were able to work together and figure out a process that worked for everyone by just clicking on one link. Getting used to something new is a challenge for anyone, especially when it comes to technology. Once everyone got ahold of what to do it was smooth sailing. Participants are very much enjoying the classes and some have been asking for more classes and video recorded to do at home.”

Allen-Russell stressed that the process to join isn’t as hard as it might sound, and is quite simple to get set up.

“If you have the internet than you can have Balanced Fitness live classes every Friday,” said Allen-Russell. “There are no requirements to join the classes and participants are fully encouraged to take part to the best of their ability. There is no skill level required and modifications are made to meet the needs of all the participants.”

The online classes mean that Hicks can continue to build strength, feel better, and connect with those in his class.

“I’m sure that these exercises have kept me stronger and feeling better, especially during these ‘stay home’ days,” he said. “I recommend them very highly.”

For Allen-Russell too, it’s a unique experience in her almost-15 years of experience being a seniors’ fitness instructor.

“Our in-person balanced fitness classes were a very social part of our lives prior to the pandemic,” she said. “Some individuals would even arrive 45 minutes to an hour early to help set-up, chit chat and spend time together. Each class started with updates, new information, stories, and of course, a joke.”

“They are the best,” said participant Karen Vick. “I find as far as exercising I get more out of them because I can stay focused. Miss the social aspect of the group. I do LOVE to talk.”

Vick implored Allen-Russell to keep the classes going.

“You do an awesome job,” she said. “I thought walking was enough but it’s not. Need what you are doing for stretch and balance.”

Kathy Gartshore agreed that the class helps round out the benefits of other exercise.

“I know the exercises help with all aspects of movement,” she said. “Walking is great for you but I need the exercise to go along with the walking, and I love who teaches us.”

Linda Schrader also applauded the program, as well as Allen-Russell as the group’s instructor.

“The exercise class is great,” she said. “This free program offered has lots of good benefits for us as we age. It helps me with balance and strength. Jamie does an excellent job with lots of motivation, care and fun. It’s provided me with new friendships as well as keeping me mobile.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Allen-Russell to adapt a class that began in-person to one that’s held online.

“Without my participants physically with me makes it quite challenging to be myself as a person,” said Allen-Russell. “Let’s face it, it’s not easy talking to a computer. With so many screens open to watch, a class to instruct and to be the only person in the room just isn’t the same.”

Seeing familiar faces again, though, makes it worthwhile for Allen-Russell, who said it fills a gap that was empty for many for several months.
When she logged on to the class on Jan. 14, Allen-Russell was joined by 16 participants, quite the increase from the first class.

“As a fitness leader and dedicated HHHS Community Support Service team member it makes me feel honoured and privileged to have such a great supportive group who continue to participate even behind a screen,” said Allen-Russell. “Being able to provide this service to our community is of great benefit to the health and well-being of so many individuals. For me, to see the smiles on everyone’s faces, to hear the laughter in the group, and to see the commitment to return weekly makes me feel that I am providing a much needed service to our community.”

Allen-Russell said she receives thank-you emails and texts after each class, thanking her for a great workout.

“Now that’s reassuring and satisfying,” she said.

For more information about the classes, email or call 705-457-5682 for more information.