EWU Students Help Seniors Get Fit

May 22, 2024

Thanks in part to a caring cohort of Eastern students, advanced age doesn’t keep the residents at Cheney Care Center from getting their weekly exercise. 

Senior independent living residents at the center who participate in the “Stay Active, Independent Living,” or SAIL, classes learn a range of age-appropriate workouts taught by senior capstone students in EWU’s exercise science program. 

The ultimate goal of the classes is fall prevention, says Diana Grishko, site supervisor and graduate student in the exercise science program: “We want to strengthen muscles to avoid atrophy and prevent falls.”

Photo of residents at the Cheney Care Center being treated to weekly fitness classes led by EWU exercise science students.
Residents at the Cheney Care Center are treated to weekly fitness classes led by EWU’s exercise science students.

Each week, fifteen independent living residents participate. Attendees range in age from their mid-eighties up to 94 years old, says Kate Hardman, one of the student SAIL class instructors.  “And don’t let their age fool you,” Hardman says. “They’re active.”

The class begins with a warm-up, followed by dynamic and static balance exercises. It concludes with strength training. Chairs are placed in a circle so the group can sit while they exercise, or lean on the chairs for balance.

Three EWU students serve as leaders during the sessions, offering encouragement and modifications if necessary. “These [modifications] could be lowering reps, or sometimes they get dizzy, so they will sit,” says Hardman. 

Ankle and hand weights are used on an individualized basis to strengthen the muscles that promote better balance. “I was in a fetal position when I came here and, thanks to them, I’m walking,” says resident Bob Williams, a SAIL class participant. “It’s been excellent working with the students.”

Williams now fills in to help with the SAIL classes throughout the summers when the exercise science students are not teaching.

“I love the classes because they help me feel a lot better,” says Myrna Berdis, another participant.  After recovering from a fractured hip, Berdis began classes. She has now taken them for two years. “I had to work hard for those stretches,” she says. 

The EWU students and residents learn from one another: While the residents become stronger and better balanced, the EWU students become confident instructors. 

Brooke Lopez, a SAIL class instructor, says, “Teaching the classes helps me develop my listening skills and communicate effectively with a variety of people.” After graduation, Lopez says she plans to pursue a master’s degree in athletic training from the University of Idaho.  

In addition to their efforts at Cheney Care Center, EWU exercise science students also teach “Better Balance” and “Silver Strength” classes to older adults at the Wren Pierson Community Center.

“For the students, experiential learning is a highly impactful educational experience,” says Christi Brewer, an associate professor of wellness and movement sciences at EWU.  “I have had students over the years who entered the service-learning project with no interest in working with the geriatric population only to realize it is their passion.”

This was true for Grishko, the Cheney Care Center graduate student site supervisor.

“This experience changed the trajectory of my career. I thought I wanted to work with high school athletes and now I work at a physical therapy clinic with an older population,” she says. “EWU students bring a sense of community and independence to the residents. It’s more than just an exercise class, it’s a part of their life they’re looking forward to.”