Washington, D.C., resident Martha Weiss regularly attended the Suburban Hospital-sponsored senior exercise classes at the Jane E. Lawton Community Recreation Center in Chevy Chase, Maryland, for six years, until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the daily in-person classes to shut down in mid-March. This concerned the 77-year-old, who says the combination of low-impact aerobics, stretching and strength training improved her muscle tone and balance.
“What worries me, being a senior, when you can’t exercise — you can lose physical fitness in a dramatic way,” she says. “I think you age a lot faster and you don’t stay healthy or strong.”
Luckily for Weiss, classes were up and running on Zoom by early April. It only took a little help from Suburban Hospital staff to get her set up — Weiss says she’s fairly computer savvy.
The exercise class, called Senior Shape, is one of many WellWorks classes that Suburban Hospital’s Community Health and Wellness (CHW) team transitioned online when the pandemic shuttered local community centers where fitness activities normally take place. Tai chi classes, monthly community health seminars, peer support group meetings and a program for high schoolers interested in the health care field are among other offerings that moved online.
“I go back to what our role is, and that is to keep our organization connected to the community and keep them engaged, to let them know that we are there for them,” says Monique Sanfuentes, the CHW team’s administrative director of community affairs and population health.
While two members of the five-woman CHW team were re-deployed to Suburban Hospital’s COVID-19 community testing site, the rest created Zoom tutorials and trainings for participants and instructors.
Sara Demetriou, CHW’s coordinator of health initiatives and community partnerships, and Eleni Antzoulatos, CHW’s supervisor of health and wellness operations, became Zoom “super users.” They put together a Zoom FAQ and held a Zoom training session that instructors and about 200 older adults participated in before classes re-launched online.
The CHW team sends out email reminders about classes, which include instructions on how to log on to Zoom, how to create an account if it’s a participant’s first time and whom to call to help troubleshoot.
The instructors have embraced the new format in their own ways. One Senior Shape instructor, an older adult herself, sets up her living room with lights and chairs to make it more welcoming. Others kick off sessions with five minutes of conversation to get everyone loosened up. Weiss says her instructor is very friendly, and he makes sure everyone is comfortable and answers any questions before getting the class started.
“A big lesson I learned: Never underestimate our senior population,” Demetriou says. “They were on multiple classes, getting their friends to join too. They’ll exercise twice a day every day if they want to.”
In some cases, moving to an online format has allowed classes to grow in number and expand geographically. Senior Shape now has participants from across the Washington metropolitan area, as well as from New York, Florida and Vermont.
For the participants, these classes are more than just opportunities to get moving — they provide a way to stay socially connected. A Wednesday morning tai chi class, for example, starts with everyone saying hello and discussing current events.
Some people, like Weiss and her friends, meet up on Zoom outside of class. Weiss talks regularly via the video conferencing app with the three women she used to exercise with.
“I’m really happy that we have this,” Weiss says, “but I’ll be really happy when this is over and we can get back to seeing people in person.”
And Suburban Hospital will be ready to welcome the community back in person once it is safe to do so. Meanwhile, long-time and new participants have found a niche online community and continue to stay in touch, no matter where they live.