Seniors Stay Fit and Active

Health, Home & Family, This Week in History
on May 27, 2010
Courtesy of Skylands RSVP Volunteer Resource Center

Harriet Kelem, of Rockaway, N.J. (pop. 22,930), was 60 when her knees began to ache to the point that she developed a limp and even had trouble sleeping at night. Finally, I couldnt stand how uncomfortable I was, she says, so, I went to an orthopedist.

The doctor found arthritis and torn cartilage in both knees. Whats more, a bone density exam revealed Kelem had osteopenia, the precursor to osteoporosis, a disease characterized by lowered bone mass and increased risk for bone fractures. She had the knees repaired but balked when the doctor mentioned the prospect of knee replacement. Nor did she want to take medication for osteopenia. I wanted vitamins and exercise, says Kelem, now 65, who has no family history of osteoporosis.

Through Project Healthy Bones, Kelem signed up for a local exercise and education class for people with or at risk of developing osteoporosis. The program started in 1991 when the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services recognized that osteoporosis was a growing problem in the state. The 24-week series of weekly 90-minute classes guides seniors through bone-building exercises and counsels them on the importance of nutrition and drug therapy in controlling the condition.

As the program nears its 20-year anniversary, its success stems from its grassroots approach, says registered nurse Marie Bartello, a lead trainer. We train health and exercise professionals from local agencies such as the YMCA, and they recruit volunteers from the community who serve as peer leaders, Bartello says.

Originally, the concept was that after 24 weeks, new participants would [replace the old ones], she says. But people found it so beneficial that many stayed. Some people have been taking the program since 1997.

Janine LeGates, 59, a retired preschool teacher, is one peer leader recruit. My mother, father and both grandmothers had osteoporosis, she says. So, Im very interested in preserving my bone density. Ive seen what happens with brittle bones. My mother has had a broken pelvis, femur and shouldersall a direct result of osteoporosis. I didnt want to be unable to participate in life, so I thought I better get myself in gear.

The classes start with gentle stretches, followed by exercises with weights to strengthen the legs, hips, arms, shoulders and back. Classes also feature guest speakers who talk about osteoporosis research, diet and the importance of getting enough calcium and vitamin D. At some sites, the class is free; at others, participants pay $15 to $20 for weights and $5 for an information booklet.

The results are hard to argue with. Statewide, Project Healthy Bones averages 2,000 participants, including people from almost all of New Jerseys 21 counties. A program review of 271 participants found that 68 percent have increased their daily calcium intake by an average of 500 milligrams since starting classes. One countys review of 90 participants found that 97 percent are more confident about their balance and strength. However, because the program doesnt record baseline bone density, it has no measures of bone density improvements.

Personal testimonies are enthusiastic, though. Kelem says she has no more pain, sleeps better and is even back on the dance floor. I like to do the salsa, mambo and cha-cha, she says, and if I didnt do these exercises, I think I would not be able to walk.