Seniors Stay Healthy with Friends and Fitness

By Tonya Jameson

Inside the community room at Greater Bethel AME Church, music blared as arms reached toward the ceiling and bodies swayed. Laugher rang out as the group’s leader called out the steps.

“Push it away,” Mitchell Smith-Bey called out, “hot dogs, push it away, hamburgers, push it

Mitchell Smith-Bey


“French fries,” a woman panted, as she swept her arm in front of her body as if she was pushing through a crowd of people.

“Push it away,” yelled Smith-Bey.

This was what staying active looked like for a group of seniors in east Charlotte, many of whom are members of the church’s Young at Heart club, as well as the Mecklenburg County Health Department’s Village HeartBeat program. According to the National Council on Aging, less than a third of seniors, people ages 65 and up, get the recommended amount of moderate daily exercise, which is 30 minutes a day, five days a week. In Charlotte, seniors are finding ways to stay active through their churches, and many are members of fitness centers such as the YWCA and the YMCA, which have tailored programs to accommodate this growing population.

“There’s old and then there’s oooollllddd,” said Doreen West, 66, after Smith-Bey’s chair aerobics class at Greater Bethel. “You gotta keep up with your grandchildren and the folks around you. You don’t want to be the feeble grandma.”

West was one of about 10 people who participated in the 30-minute class, which featured a mix of standing and sitting aerobics. Some of the seniors were mobile enough to stand for most of the class, which did not include jumping or fast movements. Others remained seated, but kept moving their legs and arms above their hearts to keep their blood flowing. The church members also have weekly walking groups.

Smith-Bey, 55, launched his chair aerobics class in the late ‘90s at a local YMCA. He designed it with the same movements found in regular aerobics classes, but the movements are done while seated. The class started with six students, and it quickly grew to 40. He began working with the Village HeartBEAT program at Rockwell AME Zion. That class averages about 50 students for the 45-minute session, and participants have collectively lost 214 pounds, he said. Now, he’s expanded it to two additional churches each week.

He said the health benefits are undeniable, but equally important is the socialization. Many of these adults live alone and typically socialize only through church activities. The group fitness classes are open to anyone in the community, whether or not they attend the host church, he said.

“It gives seniors a place to go to and socialize during the week,” he said. “We’re here to be silly and serious.”

Kirsten Sikkelee, executive director of the YWCA Central Carolinas, shares Smith-Bey’s perspective on senior fitness.

“You want to see people staying healthy all throughout their life,” she said.

Her facility is off Park Road, and people age 55 and older make up about 40 percent of the clientele, she said. The older members gravitate to water-based classes, such as Aqua Arthritis Energizer and Aqua Tai Chi. There’s the highly popular low impact aerobics class called Move & Groove.

The YWCA welcomes the older members, featuring images of them working out on the website. And the instructors reflect the clientele. There’s an 82-year-old yoga and Pilates instructor, and a 60-year-old yoga instructor.

“It’s great,” Sikkelee said. “People can see themselves in their instructor.”