Penn South Classes Tone the Body, Sharpen the Mind
BY SCOTT STIFFLER | They may not be feeling the burn, but they’re definitely seeing an improvement in strength, coordination and mobility.
Open to residents and neighbors alike, the high-energy, low-impact classes offered at the Penn South Senior Center are designed to get those 55 and over up from their chairs, out of the apartment and, depending on your situation, back into a seat.
FITNESS WITH IVY
Sitting down doesn’t mean turning into an object at rest. Those who take “Fitness with Ivy” are in for 45 minutes of pure motion. In this room, chairs are for exercise. There are no tables for playing cards, no chips for snacking and no TV to watch. The only source of entertainment is the good humor that flows back and forth, from instructor to students, as the group moves to music that’s as mildly risqué as their friendly interchanges.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Just a Gigolo” were among the mix tape selections that accompanied Ivy Volkowitz’s call to action.
“Knee raises. March it out. Separate your feet. Tap, tap, tap. Yeah. And the arms! Now, jumping jacks,” she said, demonstrating a standard and a modified version. After that, it was time for some boxing. “Punch, now pivot,” she said, as the students went through their “Rocky” paces — some with hourglass dumbbell weights, some with chairs in front of them for support and some displaying expert form as the routine ended with a series of quick uppercuts. In Ivy’s class, all the moves are designed to meet you at your own comfort level, even as the instructor challenges you to do those final few repetitions.
“People come to my class in wheelchairs and walkers,” says Volkowitz. A Penn South resident for 15 years, the 62-year-old certified instructor teaches an All-Level class three times a week, plus a weekly Advanced Level version.
“I have people in my class with Parkinson’s, with polio. I have some with MS. I even have people with dementia,” says Volkowitz. “The All-Level students, they can do the entire class in the chair if they want to. I give options. If you’ve had a stroke and can’t lift one arm, you can use to other arm. But for the Advanced class, we don’t use chairs. We do aerobics and strength training.”
COUPLES (PHYSICAL) THERAPY
Alongside his 83-year-old wife, Bob Stack, 87, has been a regular at Penn South fitness classes for over a decade.
“We know how important exercise is,” said Eunice, in a recent phone interview.
“In my working life,” recalls Bob of his pre-retirement days, “I did a lot of physical labor, but didn’t spend a lot of time on exercises. Truth be told, if it weren’t for Eunice, I probably wouldn’t go. Generally, I’m the only man there — maybe one or two more. But I when I finish that class, I feel better.”
Penn South residents since 2002, the couple attributes their overall good health not just to regular class attendance, but also to eating right. “We know the value of a good diet,” says Eunice, with Bob quickly adding that this wasn’t always the case. “I can remember enjoying steaks by the pound,” he says, “and now, once every eight weeks [“Not even that.” counters Eunice], we have beef. We have chicken once in a while, and seafood regularly — but in much different quantities than we used to. These days, not only do I not want a lot of beef, but when I get it, I’m not all that thrilled.”
“I think once you get on a diet of more salads and more vegetables, that feels right,” says Eunice. “Then you want to exercise and maintain your weight. Ivy has great music and great exercises. It’s a feel-good experience that goes hand in hand with good living — and our living here in Penn South certainly fosters friendship and activity. We’re very fortunate.”
Bob credits Penn South classes with giving them the stamina to hike 50 miles of the 500-mile Camino de Santiago path a few summers ago. “We did it in five days,” he recalls, “and that wouldn’t have been possible without taking part the exercise program.” Good genes probably didn’t hurt, either. “Both of my parents lived a long time, well into their 90s,” says Bob, who made a prediction that seemed to catch his wife pleasantly off-guard. “Eunice and I are planning to hike the entire 500-mille trail for my 90th birthday,” he vowed.
“Anything’s possible,” she quipped, not missing a beat.
Elsewhere on the schedule, the weekly yoga class is another example of how the chair is rescued from its traditional role as a contributor to the sedentary lifestyle.
“We do a lot of warm-ups — stretching and moving all the different joints, the neck and shoulders, wrists and ankles, as well as moving the spine forward and back and to the side,” says instructor Susan Genis. “All these things are done in a normal yoga class, but we do them in a chair because of that stability. We do poses where we stand, and the chair helps with balance. A lot of the yoga poses are specifically about balance, which helps to strengthen the bones and muscles. So we’re increasing mobility with limbering and stretching as well as working on strength and stamina.”
Genis, 65, has taught the Penn South “Chair Yoga” class for over a decade, and says it’s designed to deliver all the physical and mental benefits of yoga, while remaining “accessible for people who can’t necessarily get up and down to the floor.”
One of yoga’s greatest benefits, she notes, comes from bringing a new awareness to something her students — most of them in their 70s and 80s — have been doing all their life, though largely on autopilot. “We breathe 24-7,” notes Genis, “but we don’t pay much attention to the quality, the sensation of movement, as we’re doing it. Yoga is often thought of as a physical practice, but that’s only one piece of what’s considered the study of yoga — which is also about quieting the mind. The way you do that is through a deeper awareness of the physical body. So we coordinate the breath with the movements.”
For Georgia Weaver, the Chair Yoga and Tai Chi classes are largely responsible for keeping her a “fairly fit 73.” Regular attendance, along with participating in the weekly Walking Club and staying away from meat and chicken, have helped her “maintain the same weight, 150 pounds, for years. I’m not losing, and I’m not gaining. That’s the beauty of these classes. I go to the Tai Chi for balance, and I do yoga for stretching and mindfulness. It really helps you focus and shut out the rest of the world, because you’re feeling your body and breath together. I never did it [yoga] before Susan’s class. I have a very busy life, with a lot of pressures on me. I can get very anxious, and the yoga really helps with that.”
STRETCH AND TONE
In the fast-paced class taught by quick-witted Margrecia, you know exactly where you stand (even when you’re seated in an upright position).
“Why do we do this?” she asks as a class of 14 — some sitting, some standing, most smiling and all of them reaching towards the sky. “You’re doing this to strengthen your arms so you can push away all those people who want to help you carry your groceries.”
Laughter spreads throughout the room, which she works with the showbiz flair of Joan Rivers and the conditioned prowess of a workout-era Jane Fonda (a comparison validated by the thin silhouette and the defined arms).
Margrecia, 70, began teaching in 1975. “I’ve seen everything,” she says, counting aerobics, belly dancing and yoga among the types of instruction on her resume. Trends many come and go — but laughter, she notes, remains the best preventative medicine. “It enhances everyone’s mood, because they come in and they want to laugh,” she says. “I also play great music, everything from pop and classical to Latin and ballroom.”
No matter the genre, Margrecia says she’s a “group exercise trainer” at heart. This current Penn South class channels the task of stretching and toning into everything from calisthenics to dance. “My oldest student is 102. I have a few in their 90s. The rest are in their 70s and 80s, mostly,” she notes. “We do all kinds of movements and I try to encourage people to wear attractive clothing. We also use Dyna-Bands for strengthening and we do balance exercises. In the middle of everything, we laugh and endure. The idea is to adapt the exercise to the participants, so everyone has a great time and continues doing this year after year.”
— The Penn South Senior Center is (temporarily) located at 343 Eighth Ave. (corner of W. 27th St.). For information, call 212-243-3670. To see the weekly schedule of classes (designed for ages 55 and up), visit pennsouthlive.org.