GERAS DANCE waltzes across Canada

Throughout her retirement, Joanne Weeks always stayed active and attended weekly fitness classes. But when the pandemic hit, the classes were cancelled. Weeks noticed the decline not just in her fitness level, but her balance and flexibility as well.

“I felt like my fitness had gone backwards,” she says. “Things that had always been easy for me, like going upstairs and gardening, became harder. I was at a loss without my fitness classes.”

Then, a friend of Weeks’ posted on Facebook about some virtual fitness and dance classes.

Virtual Fitness for Older Adults

In response to the pandemic, the Geras Centre for Aging Research (Geras Centre), a joint research centre of Hamilton Health Sciences (HHS) and McMaster University, partnered with the YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford to create LiveWell at Home, a virtual senior-friendly fitness program.

“I was one of the first people to register for the virtual fitness program,” says Weeks. “It was exactly what I needed to get back what I’d lost.”

The program was built on the success of the GERAS DANcing for Cognition & Exercise (DANCE) research study.

For the past three years, the GERAS DANCE program of research has involved more than 500 seniors at 12 YMCA sites across Ontario. The study has found that dance classes for older adults sharpens the mind, strengthens the body and helps build social connections.

“GERAS DANCE has been filling a need for older adults not just physically, but socially and mentally,” says Dr. Alexandra Papaioannou, Geriatrician at HHS and Geras executive director.

Staying Social and Active During the Pandemic

“The pandemic made it difficult for some older adults to get out and many become housebound,” says Dr. Patricia Hewston, co-creator of the GERAS DANCE program, research associate and past post-doctoral fellow at McMaster University’s Labarge Centre for Mobility in Aging. “By developing GERAS DANCE into a virtual program, it allowed older adults to stay connected while improving their health.”

GERAS DANCE is one of three fitness classes offered in the LiveWell at Home virtual fitness program. The program began in January 2021 and is ongoing.

Weeks really enjoyed the GERAS DANCE classes. Each class built on the last one and allowed for modifications based on the participants’ comfort level. This allowed her to increase the intensity as she built back her strength. She says she would even sing along as the class danced.

“Even with the classes being online, it was a great opportunity to get to know other people,” she says. “It really helped with the lack of social opportunities caused by the pandemic.”

The virtual GERAS DANCE class has elements that are both sitting and standing to accommodate various fitness levels of seniors.

GERAS DANCE Goes National

As part of the ongoing research on the effect of dance classes on cognition, the Geras Centre and the YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford expanded GERAS DANCE to 20 different locations across Canada. This has been made possible by a grant through the Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation (CABHI) which supports innovative ideas to improve the lives of older adults during the pandemic.

“When the pandemic hit we knew it would have a significant impact on the health of our community, especially older adults. Launching LiveWell at Home allowed us to deliver high quality programs like GERAS DANCE in a virtual format,” says Genevieve Hladysh, senior regional manager, health, fitness and aquatics at the YMCA of Hamilton/Burlington/Brantford. “We are excited to launch GERAS DANCE on a national scale to long-term care and retirement facilities across the country. Bringing research to life through innovative, best practice, community based programs is the essence of our LiveWell partnership.”

Expanding the program nationally is also a great way to begin to understand the benefits of virtual programming for older adults as the pandemic continues.

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