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Exercise program sparks new life in aging adults

Rutgers Center for Exercise and Aging celebrates 15 years of bringing students and seniors together in a quest for better health

For Ruth Gottlieb, 82, and Jean Timper, 85, and members at the East Brunswick Senior Center in New Jersey, exercise is the high point of their day. What gets them most excited? Line dancing.

“I even dance around the house. When I’m vacuuming or cooking, I just stop and dance around and stretch. I like to be flexible,” says Gottlieb, a former teacher who says her only regular exercise before retirement was running after students.

Since 2002, the friends have kept moving through programs designed by Rutgers University’s Center for Exercising and Aging, in which students lead seniors in activities ranging from strength training to aerobics. “If I had not been exercising all these years, I don’t think I’d be here or doing as great as I am,” says Timper.

The center, which celebrates 15 years this year, was founded by Susan Kaplowitz, a teaching professor in the De-partment of Kinesiology and Health at Rutgers’ School of Arts and Sciences. As a personal trainer specializing in older adults, Kaplowitz realized that her students – primarily exercise science majors – would benefit from a course that taught them the importance of exercise in the aging population.

“I wanted to provide a course that would prepare them for careers that involved geriatrics,” she says. “Plus, I thought it would be a great way to apply our knowledge to benefit the local community.”

Kaplowitz launched the program with the participation of her own clients as she reached out to local senior centers and assisted living facilities, such as the East Brunswick Senior Center and Monroe Village in Monroe Township. The organizations partner with the program by allowing students to work with their members on-site or sending seniors to gyms on the Cook/Douglass campus for exercise classes throughout the year.

“Seniors visit centers mainly to socialize,” Kaplowitz says. “It’s an important part of their day. The program allows them to socialize and build their self-confidence as they see their strength improve. Many of our participants have not exercised before, especially in strength training.”

Exercise helps older adults maintain daily functions, Kaplowitz notes. “The most important exercises focus on the lower body to improve balance since seniors are prone to falls,” she says. “Cardiovascular exercise is also essential. As people age, muscle mass decreases and body fat composition increases, which can lead to conditions like diabetes. Car-dio can improve body composition and endurance and allow seniors to perform daily tasks without losing breath.”

Strength training improves flexibility; when seniors keep moving, their joints stay mobile, helping to prevent osteoarthritis and assisting them in activities like moving their head easier when driving.

“I’ve seen many 80-year-olds who are more fit than 50-year-olds. It doesn’t matter how athletic you once were, when your body ages, you need to exercise to maintain it,” says teaching assistant Bella Bulsara, who will graduate this spring with a bachelor’s of science degree and continue on to graduate school to become a physical therapist. “The most important goal is to preserve the ability to perform simple tasks, like lifting your arms and walking, without losing breath. Each person has his or her own constraints. The students learn how to tailor exercises to the individual, even when lead-ing a large group.”

Last year, the center began a collaboration with Rutgers’ School of Health Professions, in which Aging Track program director Tracy Davis brings her perspective as a researcher in gerontology as an instructor and guest lecturer. In the future, Kaplowitz envisions more collaborations with the school.

The students perform community outreach as well. Since 2009, they have helped supervise the New Jersey Senior Olympics in Woodbridge and participated in the Middlesex County Run/Walk by hosting programs on balance, performing fitness tests and offering games.

“I bubble over when I exercise with the students,” says Millie Holder, 93, a resident at Monroe Village. “They give great pointers. It’s so important to keep as active as possible for your ability – even if you’re just moving your fingers. The students help me zero in on arthritis; I roll a ball up my arm with one finger, squeeze a ball or use stretch bands, but chair aerobics is my favorite.”

Exercise has improved Holder’s stamina. “I used to think it was such long walk to my apartment,” she says.

“Now, I run from my home to the auditorium. Being active every day is the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

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