Local seniors stay in motion: My experience attending four exercise classes for the elderly

Sofie Jones

The Council on Aging offers free fitness classes at the Harper Center for community members to stay active. (Sofie Jones/ The Williams Record.)

We all know how students stay active on campus: working out in Upper Lasell, competing on the College’s athletic fields and occasionally sprinting to Goodrich for a bagel two minutes before it closes. I’ve realized, however, that I know very little about how Williamstown’s non-student residents stay fit, especially during the frigid and seemingly endless winter. In the spirit of experiential learning, I decided to see if I could keep up with some of the town’s most active residents at the Council on Aging’s fitness classes at the Harper Center. 

I was initially surprised by the breadth of weekly classes offered free of charge. There are sessions on tai chi, yoga (of the chair and not-chair varieties) and a host of other options. While the council hosts the typical bingo and painting sessions, its exercise classes are its crown jewel. Brian O’Grady, who runs the program, told me that exercise is “about keeping people on their feet.” Fitness is an integral part of living an independent and healthy lifestyle for many residents. Some of the center’s classes, such as their balance workshops, are directly geared toward this aim, but all of them, O’Grady explained to me, help their students to stay physically and mentally engaged. 

Early on Friday morning, I headed to my first class: tai chi with Youlin Shi, a North Adams resident who has taught the class since 1995. My academic schedule hampered me from participating in Shi’s beginners class, but she graciously welcomed me, a total new-comer, to her advanced session. Having never done tai chi before, I did not know what to expect and planned to keep up by copying other students’ movements. Easy enough, I thought to myself, as I took my place in the warm-up circle. My unfounded confidence was quickly broken, however, as I discovered that tai chi is anything but easy. It not only requires physicality and elegance, but also is a feat of memory. We began with a 24-movement sequence, which I muddled through, and then moved on to the 48. I was astounded that everyone else had completely memorized the intricate movements and was impressed by their dedication. As one attendee told me after class, “This is good anti-Alzheimer’s medication.”

 The other students, most of whom have been practicing tai chi for years, also moved swiftly from one position to the next. If they were gliding swans, however, I was a flailing duck. After I gave the class a good laugh with my misplaced steps and stupefied facial expressions, we moved on to sword work, ending the class with a sequence that combined fluid movement with sword combat. 

I then geared up for Jane Jezouit’s balance class, which I had been warned was pretty intense. We began with some standing balance exercises, which I felt fairly capable of until we were told to close our eyes, roll our necks back and move our unanchored right foot in circles in the air. After a couple demoralizing falls, I admitted defeat and held on to the back of my chair. Many of my classmates, however, remained perfectly and infuriatingly still. The hardest part of the hour for me, though, came when we moved to the walls around the room’s perimeter. Although I would by no means describe myself as athletically gifted, I don’t consider myself remarkably out of shape. However, I struggled more with this wall-sit than I care to admit. I could tell that the others also found it difficult, but Jezouit encouraged us to keep going (and going and going). When we stopped, and I could finally feel my quads again, Jezouit ended the class with some handheld weight reps to the soundtrack of some catchy tunes. I emerged from the class quite sore and sweaty, evidence of any good workout. 

After a weekend of recovery, I returned on Monday to take on the other classes that the Harper Center has to offer. Next up was yoga, which is offered at two different skill levels each week. On this specific morning, Judy Fitzgerald filled in for Mary Edgarton, who usually teaches the beginners class and also offers many sessions at the College. While the more advanced yoga class included flow and mat work, this 9 a.m. one was designed for those not able to partake in more strenuous yoga and mostly took place while seated. Fitzgerald’s goal in the class, she said, was to encourage attendees to move creatively and freely. In dim lighting, this class felt relaxingly therapeutic and was a delightful start to my day. 

I did not know what was in store for me when I headed to a late morning class ominously called “Exercise,” but I had high hopes. I am happy to report that I was not at all disappointed. Instructor Karyn O’Toole got us energized for the week with a seated dance party. With its rockin’ music, rhythmic moves, and O’Toole’s motivational commentary, this class is far superior to any Soulcycle ride in my book. This class was truly the gift that kept on giving, as I realized a few minutes into the class that O’Toole was blasting the same ABBA’s Greatest Hits CD that my mom used to play on long car rides. This made me confident that the Harper Center’s music stash was far superior to anything I’ve ever heard on Hoxsey. 

This was the smallest class I attended, as there were only about eight of us total. One woman, named Cherie, recently moved to Williamstown from the West Coast, where she regularly attended many yoga and exercise classes. Although she feared that she would not find comparable programs in the Purple Valley, she has been thrilled with “how tailored [the center’s] classes are.” Wendy, Terry and Seena, three regular attendees, also raved about the range of fitness levels that the instructors accommodate. “It’s about knowing your personal physical limits,” Wendy told me. “You have to know your own body.” They stressed also that the class was an opportunity to have fun, and that I shouldn’t worry about following along perfectly. Lucky for me, the lovely crew of ladies quickly took me under their wing, and soon I was bopping to the iconic hit “Dancing Queen” without a care in the world. 

As I said goodbye and hurried from the Harper Center to my less dance-worthy academic classes, I was reminded of something Mike, a Williamstown resident who I’d met during tai chi, said to me when I asked why these classes were important to him. He answered, “We laugh together, we exercise together and it enriches senior life.”