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Veterans' exercise program offers specialized training for seniors with military backgrounds

By BRIANNE TWIDDY | The Ann Arbor News, Mich. | Published: July 3, 2019

ANN ARBOR, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Vietnam and Iraq war veteran Edgar Groom doesn’t like gyms.

They’re boring and the people are unfriendly, he said. But Gerofit, a free national program that promotes exercise and health for veterans 65 or older, is different and fun, Groom said.

“The people are nice and everyone helps you if you need any help,” said Groom, 70. “During hard times, (the other veterans are) there. It’s like a social gym club — if you’re gone for a while, they ask you about it.”

The Ann Arbor Veterans Health System added Gerofit to their program in May 2018 and only had three members during its first few months. A year later, it has 50 active participants, with at least 25 veterans attending every session, said program coordinator Katie Althuis.

There are morning and afternoon sessions every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 2025 Traverwood Drive in suite E. The sessions begin with personalized individual exercise routines based on a veteran’s physical abilities, balance and goals.

The program also offers group classes in Tai Chi, balance, core coordination and strength, and a few workout machines, including a treadmill and ellipticals.

Then there’s the floor class, which is for veterans who have trouble getting off the floor. The floor workouts help build the strength and balance needed to rise on their own, Althuis said. Some members call it the torture class, she said.

“At some point, they will fall and we have to teach them how to recover if they do,” Althuis said. "They don’t like it, but they know they need it.”

Groom, who has back and arm issues, has been part of the program for seven months. With physical therapy, it was too easy to fall out of the routine. But the only time he misses a Gerofit session is while traveling.

“Even then, I miss being there,” Groom said.

The Gerofit exercises can help improve knees, back and hip issues and relieve pain, Althuis said. It doesn’t solve the problems, but it reduces symptoms, she said.

But the most important part of the program, she said, is the social aspect. The veterans are surrounded by peers with similar histories and can talk about health issues, share war stories and just build a community, she said.

“Some people wouldn’t come to the sessions without the social aspect,” Althuis said. “It’s a sense of community that keeps them going.”

Some new participants in the program start out grumpy, but it never lasts long — the veterans in Gerofit are too friendly, Groom said.

“It’s easier because we’re all veterans, we’re all part of that same group and understand,” he said. “Some people come in and seem very low and being in the program changed their whole personality.”

Althuis aims to add more staff members to the program. She currently runs it with a few interns and a student, she said. They could also use more space and newer equipment, Groom said.

With only a few machines and one treadmill, the veterans can usually tolerate the wait, but it’s getting harder with the growing amount of members, he said.

“Everyone comes back (to Gerofit sessions),” Groom said. “There hasn’t been anyone who has joined and didn’t come back. It’s too great of a program for that.”

©2019 The Ann Arbor News, Mich.

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