YMCA branches hope older adults will bust a move for health
They may not be up to doing breakdancing or Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, but the YMCA Niagara is hoping a lot of older adults and seniors in the region will start dancing themselves to better fitness and clearer minds.
The local YMCA organization and fellow YMCAs in Oakville and HamiltonBurlington-Bradford have partnered with the GERAS Centre for Aging Research at Hamilton Health Sciences to bring a new 12-week dance program — designed for older adults aged 60 or more who may have early mobility or cognitive impairments, such as difficulty climbing stairs or walking around the block, or declining memory.
Called GERAS Dance, the program consists of a warmup session, 30 minutes of seated and standing ballroom-type dancing, a cool-down and time for socialization. The program of one-hour sessions takes place twice a week and is free with a YMCA membership or for a $90 fee for non-Y members, although the YMCA does have financial assistance available, said Hamilton-Burlington-Bradford YMCA senior regional manager Genevieve Hladysh.
It will be offered at each of the YMCA’s Niagara locations in St. Catharines, Niagara Falls, Welland, Port Colborne, Grimsby and Fort Erie, starting on a staggered basis in late February and into March.
The dance program was spearheaded by a pilot project at one of the Hamilton Y branches by scientists at GERAS, including lead investigator Dr. Alexandra Papaioannou and co-investigator Courtney Kennedy.
The launch of the program in the three YMCA organizations — including Niagara’s — is a subsequent implementation study examining the feasibility of scaling up the mind-body program for high-risk seniors across multiple sites, the two researchers said in a letter.
Kennedy, associate scientific director of the GERAS Centre, said the research done so far suggests people with those early cognitive and physical declines can really benefit from the dance.
“We think we can really slow the onset [and] maybe partially reverse it,” she said. “It’s a great program.
“The goal is to keep older adults healthy and active as long as possible.”
Dance is fun, but beyond that fun are very real benefits that can include: improved muscle strength and balance, lower extremity strength, improved aerobic capability and improving cognitive function as the mind learns new motor movements, said Kennedy.
While the program is open to people aged 60 and over, one man who was pushing age 90 even took part in the pilot study, said Kennedy.
“He loved it,” she said. “It was awesome.”
In addition to the physical and cognitive benefits, the program also promotes socialization among older people who may be at risk of becoming isolated, said Kennedy; those social connections also lasted outside of class time, she said.
“Ultimately, we are targeting culture change ... the idea that seniors of all ages and abilities need opportunities to exercise both the mind and the body,” said Kennedy.
Hladysh said that the dance program is an extension of a community health-based partnership between the YMCA, Hamilton Health Sciences and McMaster University known as Live Well, dating back to 2007.
While the program is still being assessed, Hladysh said the reaction of participants at the pilot program in Hamilton points to something making a real impact.
“They had a phenomenal time,” she said. “We found people came for the physical benefits, but also those social connections, just being out there with people. Social isolation is a big thing we’re trying to overcome.”
Samantha Cameron, Niagara lead on the program, said YMCA staff hope the program will attract people who might not fit into a regular big box gym. “This is an opportunity to get involved in a very supportive environment where music can really spark the neurons in the brain,” she said.
The full program spans 14 weeks — with participants undergoing a short screen for cognitive and physical function in the first week, and a final assessment in the last week.
The YMCA of Niagara said that no background in dance is necessary to take part, but participants should be able to walk at least 10 metres and get out of a chair unassisted.
Registration is required to participate. The program’s start date and locations at YMCA branches are:
• Port Colborne, (905) 835-9622, Feb. 20;
• Grimsby, (905) 309-9622, Feb. 25;
• St. Catharines, (905) 934-9622, March 1;
• Niagara Falls, (905) 358-9622, March 11;
• Fort Erie, (905) 871-9622, March 19;
• Welland, (905) 735-9622, March 25.
Louise Di Liberto, left, and Linda Wilson were part of the GERAS Dance pilot project at the Les Chater Family YMCA in Hamilton in 2018. The program is coming to the YMCA of Niagara branches.
A group of seniors enjoy some dancing as part of the GERAS Dance pilot project.