Sweatin' to the oldies?

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Writer Mark LaFlamme warms up for a morning workout with the SilverSneakers gang at Mary Jane’s School of Dance in Lewiston.

Perspiring reporter finds age is a state mind

The music in Linn Morin’s workout class is loud. It’s a remix of some old disco songs, and the 20 or so men and women in the room are grooving to it.

I mean, they’re really grooving to it.

The biggest mistake one can make about Morin’s classes – and it’s a mistake I made myself to great woe – is to think of them as senior workouts. You know: exercise for old people.

While it’s true that the folks getting their sweat on at Mary Jane’s School of Dance are in their 60s, 70s, 80s and, in a few cases, 90s, there is nothing geriatric about this workout.

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“You can talk about age all you want,” says Morin, who leads 18 classes a week. “I have people in their 80s who are taking this class, they’re in that kind of shape. I have an 81-year-old woman who can plank for five minutes. She’s unbelievable. It’s really not about age.”

That’s good, because after about five minutes of Morin’s workout, I was winded. And not just winded, I was embarrassingly behind the rest of the class as Morin led us through her fast-paced moves. I was doing my best to put my left foot in and take my right foot out when ordered to do so, but by the time I got there, the others were moving on to the next maneuver while “Stayin’ Alive” blasted from the stereo speakers.

“You’ll get there,” 73-year-old Dave Morton assured me. Easy for him to say, right? This is a guy who’s been taking Morin’s classes for three years, fitting them in around regular tai chi practice.

The show off.

Hot stuff

As it turns out, the on-in-years men and women aren’t working out with Morin just to pass time. Many of them are here because their health and the quality of their lives depend on it.

Take Ruth Slosberg, a 71-year-old who works out regularly in Morin’s balance and strength class. A few years ago, Slosberg needed a knee replacement, but her doctor wouldn’t perform the surgery because she was so badly overweight. Slosberg got herself on a weight-loss plan and she began coming to Morin’s classes, ultimately losing 97 pounds in the process.

“My range of motion is better now,” Slosberg says. “My knees are better, my arthritis is better. I wouldn’t give this up for anything. It’s been life-changing in a wonderful way.”

While Slosberg was busy shedding nearly 100 pounds, her husband Robert also started coming to Morin’s classes and lost 43 himself. When the Slosbergs say it’s been life-changing, they’re not exaggerating.

“We went to a wedding recently,” says Ruth. “We hadn’t danced for five years, but this time we were able to. We danced to ‘YMCA’ and ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.'”

Take Jackie McMorran, 82, as well. For four years, she worked out at Curves. Then that business closed, so McMorran gravitated to Morin’s balance and strength class, where good things started happening.

“This is the perfect class for me. It keeps the joints moving,” McMorran said. “If I don’t come to the class for a couple days, I really notice the difference.”

And there’s 75-year-old Joanne Giard, who has been working out to Morin’s thumping disco for three years. In the spring, Giard injured her ankle. The injury might have hobbled her for good, but it didn’t.

“My doctor told me, the only reason you didn’t break it is because of the workouts,” Giard said. “He really liked the format I get here. He likes that she gets us up and then brings us down. When I tell him about the class, he’s like, ‘Fabulous. Keep it up.”

Then there’s Laurette Lauze, a 72-year-old who has been working out under Morin’s guidance for nearly seven years. This is a woman who came to Morin with a body full of arthritis; a woman who has had two knee replacements. A life of sitting in chairs and hobbling everywhere she went seemed imminent. Then she started working out with Morin and she feels better. She moves around better and the overall quality of her life has improved.

Some of those who exercise with Morin have never done much by way of working out. Others have athletic backgrounds, but then found themselves becoming complacent as the years piled up behind them.

Margaret Craven has no interest in revealing her age, but says, “I’m a senior for sure.” Craven has been running for 40 years, but while her lower parts benefited greatly from that, she tended to ignore her upper body. Then she started taking Morin’s class and the gains came quickly.

“I found that I really like it, and Linn is a very good trainer,” Craven says. “Now I can shovel snow and dig in my garden. I think people believe that as you get older, you can’t build up your muscles and get stronger. That’s really not true at all. You really, really can.”

She doesn’t have to waste any time convincing me of this. As I struggled and strained and sweated through Morin’s advanced class, followed by intermediate classes, I was surrounded by people of advanced years who looked plenty strong indeed – and utterly committed to staying that way.

“I’ve got to take care of myself,” says 74-year-old Gilman Dube, “because nobody else is going to do it for me. I’m going to do this for as long as I can.”

I will survive

Morin, 55, has been teaching these kinds of classes since 1985, although she did take a few years off to raise a family. A certified SilverSneakers/Flex trainer, her routine involves a ton of aerobic exercise that borders on dance, but she also incorporates things like bouncy balls, dumbbells and resistance tubes. The result is a mix of exercise that focuses on the whole body, everything from cardio to muscle development.

“I like the variety you get here,” says Giard. “You get strength and you get balance, which is so important as you age.”

“Linn is so into what she does,” Slosberg agrees, “and she’s so good at it. You feel safe in her class.”

Which is not to say that Morin is above kicking their butts. She can play all the jaunty music she wants and shout positive slogans until her voice is gone. Ultimately, for 50 minutes or so, Morin is making sure that her students are getting in a workout they will feel in the morning.

“It’s fun,” says Lee Morin, 75. “It keeps me young. It’s good cardio and it’s a good way to lose a few pounds. My lung function is much better than it was before. I’m more fluid now.”

Carmen Valliere says she had “bad bones” before she started taking the class. Because Morin’s exercise routine is both weight-bearing and muscle strengthening, she’s seen improvements in her bone density since joining the class. Not that it’s always easy.

“Sometimes I can’t wait to be here,” Valliere says. “Other times, I have to force myself.”

Cindy Larock — a Baby Boomer — is among the youngest to participate in Morin’s classes. For Larock, the music that dominates the workouts is a key part of the experience.

“I’m not a fan of exercising just to exercise,” she says. “What motivates me is music, and Linn plays a great assortment of upbeat music from all eras: Elvis, the Beatles, disco hits, country classics, new stuff – you never know what’s gonna pop up on the play list. One minute we’re singing along with Neil Diamond on ‘Sweet Caroline’ (‘So good! So good!’) and the next we’re groovin’ to Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy.'”

For me, the music is both blessing and bane. Although I would enjoy sitting quietly in a corner and listening to it, the music transforms the workout into something that is uncomfortably close to dance. And most people who know me know how I feel about dance. I don’t like to do it and, more significantly, I’m not good at it.

Larock poo poos my complaints.

“Linn bends over backward to make the classes accessible to everyone,” she says. “If you can’t handle adding the hop in between the basic steps, that’s fine – leave it out, she’ll say. If you can’t manage to get your arms going in sync with your feet, no problem. Just do the feet.

“The aim of ‘Fitness with Linn,'” Larock continues, “is to just keep moving – to get that heart rate up and try not to injure anyone around you in the process.”

I managed not to injure anyone in Morin’s classes, although one woman tittered so hard at one of my stumbles, she may have ruptured something.

We are family

I noticed another thing while I was getting sweaty and messing up moves that everyone else had mastered. The men and women in the room weren’t simply fit, they seemed genuinely happy. This was a trend I saw in each of the three classes I attended. When they weren’t stepping in, stepping out and swinging their arms like their hands were on fire, there was joking. Story telling. A little bit of gossip.

As it turns out, that’s part of the process.

“It’s great fun to come with a whole group of my contemporaries,” says Craven. “We have book exchanges, we share our problems, we tell funny stories. If someone is happy, we’re all happy and everybody celebrates. If someone is sad, we understand.”

When Craven had to place her husband in long-term care, Morin’s classes were part of her therapy.

“Everybody was taking care of me over here,” she says.”They understand things that younger people might not.”

“They’re like family here, they really are,” says Sue Turcotte, in her 60s.

“If I wasn’t here,” says 83-year-old Ray Strunk, “I’d be sitting at home, on the couch and watching TV.”

It would be an understatement to relate that the students appreciate Linn Morin. By and large, they adore her, and they’ll take great pains to say so even as Morin is putting them through their paces.

“She’s so wonderful,” says McMorran. “She really motivates us.”

It’s hard to imagine that Morin would have lasted more than 30 years in the senior workout business if the feeling wasn’t mutual.

“I have such wonderful people here,” she says. “I love them and I love what I do.”

Which is not to say there aren’t challenges. The strength and balance class in particular presents unique difficulties. The class draws some of the oldest folks under Morin’s care and she’s responsible for keeping them safe even as she guides them through difficult maneuvers aimed at improving their balance.

“I love these people,” Morin says, beholding a class of so many oldsters, they can barely fit into the moderately sized room at Seniors Plus. “I really love them. But this is the hardest class to teach.”

In the balance class, the students mainly sit on the edge of chairs. As always, the music is playing loud as Morin guides them through the exercises, instructing the seniors to roll rubber balls with their feet or squish the balls beneath their heels.

“This works good for people with arthritis,” Morin says, “because it takes the knees right out of the equation.”

And while we’re extolling the virtue of exercise for seniors, let’s not forget that while she’s instructing others, Morin herself is required to perform every move she demands from others. Which means that while others were settling for one workout to get them through the day, Morin was dancing, kicking and ball-squishing her way through three – and she does every day for a total of 18 classes per week.

There’s no sign that she laments that troublesome math. When Linn Morin says she loves helping the seniors of the community maintain their health, I’m tempted to believe it utterly.

“They feel good,” Morin says, “and that makes me feel good.”

Writer Mark LaFlamme does a workout routine with the SilverSneakers gang at Mary Jane’s School of Dance in Lewiston.
Linn Morin, group fitness instructor, leads a morning SilverSneakers workout class at Mary Jane’s School of Dance in Lewiston.
Writer Mark LaFlamme tries to bust a move at Mary Jane’s School of Dance in Lewiston during a recent SilverSneakers workout. Baby boomer move-buster Cindy Larock of Lewiston shows him how.
Ruth Slosberg and her husband, Robert, stretch during a recent SilverSneakers class. “We went to a wedding recently,” said Ruth. “We hadn’t danced for five years, but this time we were able to (because of taking the class). We danced to ‘YMCA’ and ‘Old Time Rock and Roll.'”

Find a seniors fitness class

Readers looking for senior workouts should try contacting their local fitness center, their local YMCA and YWCA, Seniors Plus or their local seniors service provider, or SilverSneakers at silversneakers.com.

SilverSneakers is a fitness program provided at no cost by more than 60 health plans nationwide. The SilverSneakers FLEX program is designed for individual fitness instructors who want to offer classes at nontraditional locations.

There are four SilverSneakers programs in the Lewiston-Auburn area at: Mary Jane’s Dance Studio, Lewiston; Seniors Plus, Lewiston; Marion T. Morse Elementary, Lisbon Falls; and Health Club & Spa, Lewiston. There are also programs in Norway, Bowdoin and Brunswick.

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