Building bones and bonds
by Jessica Aitken
Warm spring sun filtered through the green leaves at Lewis Park beside the Alexander Hughes Community Center on a recent Wednesday as the bone builders exercise group met for the first time post-pandemic, maskless and fully vaccinated. They smiled and chatted about how their past year has been while they were apart and at home.
Pam Hawkes, who has been a member for the past six years, told her friends about her husband’s recovery from COVID-19 in February. It was apparent that they enjoy each other’s company and they take comfort in knowing the health risks of meeting like are now low enough to allow them to increase both their physical strength and their bonds.
The bone builders exercise program is designed to help individuals maintain and build bone mass. Trained volunteers lead weekly one-hour sessions in progressive weight-bearing exercises intended to reduce the onset or progression of osteoporosis. Developed at Tufts University, the program helps those age 50 and older to decrease the risk of falls and fractures by providing a combination of balance and strength training using light free weights.
AmeriCorps Seniors, through the local Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), supports the Claremont initiative, managed through the Joslyn Center. It was established in 2012 and some in the group have been meeting since the beginning. Members range in ages and include retirees to newcomers.
The class at the Hughes Center closed in March 2020, when all Claremont senior programs were suspended due to COVID-19 restrictions. The group kept in touch via email, celebrating holidays and birthdays, sharing information about COVID-19 testing, and where to get vaccinations, as well as sharing their own pandemic stories and vaccine reactions.
In April, someone suggested that since all of the current members were fully vaccinated, the group should consider meeting in person, outside, to connect and catch up. The area behind the Hughes Center seemed to be the best location. Everyone brought their own chairs and kept their distance. They decided to begin meeting up weekly to get back to exercising. Since everyone in the group is fully vaccinated and they are meeting outside, one week before President Biden lifted mask restrictions for small, outdoor, fully vaccinated groups, the group went ahead.
When the city’s senior programs open again, the bone builders group hopes to restart formally, inside, and get back to exercising together twice a week.
Mary Ellen Woodruff and Liz Cocek are the co-leaders of the group and have been members since 2012. The exercise routines have strengthened their bodies, helped to prevent osteoporosis and arthritis and created a wonderful environment where they can share what happens in their lives week-to-week.
“It started out for people with osteoporosis, so that’s why I came to the group. I think that’s why most of the people joined and it has helped quite a bit,” Ms. Cocek said.
The two stood comfortably side-by-side and happily talked about the group and what joy it has brought them to see others get stronger and progress in their physical health.
“We do a survey annually from people to find out how they’ve benefited from the group, and there are people who have said they really have, besides the social part…found some real physical benefits,” Woodruff said. “We’ve noticed how people have progressed since the time they started, and how slow they were at starting up and some of the things they couldn’t do,” Ms. Cocek said. The group had to stop meeting in March of 2020 when all classes at the Alexander Hughes Community Center were canceled, and members saw their physical progress diminish.
"I’ve told people that this past year I can tell how I have regressed. I’ve had arthritis in my shoulder that has come back after it had gone away before then,” Ms. Woodruff said.
Pam Hawkes talked about how the group has brought her new friends and has improved her overall health and wellness. She believes that the exercises strengthen the muscles around the bones, therefore decreasing the risk of fractures in case of a fall.
“We just have a great time when we’re together, we’re all fun loving,” Hawkes said. They share the results of their bone density tests, often finding them to be stronger than they were the previous year. “We all feel like we have benefited from the types of exercises,” Ms. Hawkes said.
While the youngest member of the group is 57, the oldest is 92 and happens to use some of the heaviest weights. Every member enthusiastically participates in weekly meetings, which is not a chore for them, but rather an activity that has brought together people with similar interests looking out for each other’s well-being and happiness.
Editor's note: Pam Hawkes contributed to this story.