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Fit-4-Life Wins the 2011 NOMA Award
posted 08.29.2011

Editor’s Note: This article appears in the September/October, 2011, issue of Aging Today, ASA’s bi-monthly newspaper covering issues in research, practice and policy nationwide. ASA members receive Aging Today as a member benefit; non-members may purchase subscriptions at our online store.

By Alison Biggar

Fit-4-Life is the 2011 ASA Network on Multicultural Aging (NOMA) Award winner. The NOMA Award rewards organizations that have demonstrated high-quality, innovative programs enhancing the lives of a multicultural aging population.

As a kid, Garry Sanon was obese, but a woman in his community intervened and got him on the right track. Though he missed the chance to thank her in person, she inspired him to pursue exercise physiology as a career. Now he’s the program coordinator at Fit-4-Life—a program attached to Tufts University that provides a gym experience, training and nutrition counseling to local elders for a reduced fee of $10 a month.

Sanon’s original plan was to work with athletes, but when working at the Boston Sports Club he was mentored by a man working at Fit-4-Life who left to join the army, and recommended Sanon take his place. He’s now so enmeshed in helping elders that his desire to work with professional athletes has disappeared.

Fit-4-Life presents Sanon with a mental challenge, because he says that for each full page in his college physiology texts, two sentences would be devoted to exercise issues for older adults. He must figure out what his clientele needs to do in their daily lives, whether it’s getting in and out of cars, carrying groceries or bending to pick up items in a safe way, and builds an exercise program that will strengthen the necessary muscles.

“Society tells you that you shouldn’t be trying to lift weights, but if you lift grocery bags, how much is that? You need to pick up your grandkids,” Sanon says. “I want to train them to be able to sustain those activities. They need to bend, do lunges and squats. One lady said her doctor told her not to do squats, but you squat all day.”

Reduce Disease, Re-Use Muscles

Fit-4-Life began in 2007, with the goal of reducing the burden of age-associated chronic disease, and providing support for healthy aging. All of Sanon’s clients have at least one chronic medical condition. Some are paralyzed from the waist down, many have been sedentary for years, and what they remember doing for exercise in their past is not what they could do now. Sanon provides what he calls a “workout that fights sitting.” It’s his aim to “make sure they’re mobilized, and they seem to like it. They’re moving better, and not worried about falling.”

The ages at Fit-4-Life span 57 to 92 years old. One 89-year-old came in the other day and told Sanon, “It’s not that I want to tone, I just want to get stronger.” Once you lose strength it’s a struggle to do much of anything, and Sanon helps them get it back. Fit-4-Life is housed in Kit Clark Senior Services, the largest senior center of its kind in Boston, and its clientele is usually recommended by their personal physicians. There are 240 elders enrolled and the program has expanded to 12 cities throughout Massachusetts. Kit Clark is in a culturally diverse, underserved neighborhood, with many clients listing English as their second language, representing up to 15 countries.

Cut Costs through Prevention

The immense diversity sometimes presents a challenge for Fit-4-Life’s nutritional counseling arm. As Kieran Reid, research program manager at the Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts, and a partner in the Kit Clark Fit-4-Life program, says, “We’re dealing with diverse cultural backgrounds. With seniors from Haiti, for example, it’s difficult to quantify their nutritional intake with the U.S. food pyramid, so we give them a camera to take home and shoot pictures of their dinners, so we can see what’s going on.”

“We find they really have benefited from counseling, though, and education on what to cook with,” he adds.

But it’s the exercise, especially considering its relatively low cost, that will become one of the great weapons in the chronic disease battle. “Exercise is going to become a cost-effective intervention for our aging population,” Reid says. “If we can stave off health problems associated with mobility loss and deficits in functioning, it will really have a beneficial effect on our healthcare system.”

The more evidence Reid can gather at Fit-4-Life and filter through Tufts, namely, proof that the exercise is effective in staving off chronic disease, the stronger the position will be for programs like Fit-4-Life to replicate nationwide. The aim is to target younger and younger people until everyone understands the long-term, beneficial effects of physical activity. That’s the way Reid sees it, anyway. Meanwhile, Garry Sanon works daily, one-on-one, with older adults, finding ways to make exercise fun and challenging while keeping an eye on the goal of more mobility. Tai chi, ankle weights, exercising from a wheelchair—as he says, “we move all joints, from the ground up.”

Alison Biggar, senior editor of Aging Today, is a Bay-Area based freelance writer and editor.

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