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Healthy endeavor

Seniors work out body, mind, spirit in social setting

Staff photo / R. Michael Semple Instructor Linda Bellan of Austintown, lower right, leads a SilverSneakers class through the paces at St. Joe’s at the Mall in Niles. Attendees range from ages 65 to 92.

NILES — Dressed in stylish gray workout gear, Marge Pestrak 92, of Warren cooled down after a Thursday morning SilverSneakers exercise class. Four or five classmates — in their 70s and 80s — hovered in the hallway, waiting to finish a conversation so they all could go to lunch.

“I find that this is a godsend for older people,” said Pestrak, who works out four or five days per week. “You meet people doing things that you’re interested in.

“People miss out on a lot if they stay home. I think about too many things,” she said.

Pestrak is among the regulars at St. Joe’s at the Mall fitness classes. The center inside Eastwood Mall shut down a year ago, following the Ohio governor’s orders due to COVID-19 concerns.

When St. Joe’s at the Mall shut down, “I walked all the floors in our apartment building 50 to 60 minutes a day,” Pestrak said. “I continue my walking always. It’s very important to acclimate yourself to physical activity.”

The center reopened June 6 after the governor allowed it. By that time, exercise machines had been rearranged so that each was at least 6 feet away from the equipment on either side. Exercise classes that had been 35 people strong were shrunk to 15 or 20 attendees to allow proper spacing. Some early morning classes moved into mall hallways before stores opened to allow more people to spread out even further. Temperatures were taken, masks were worn, and hands and equipment were sanitized frequently.

Pestrak, who does not have any family living nearby, was among the seniors to flock back to gym and exercise classes at the mall.

“This is my second home,” she said. “It’s never too late to be with the people you love.”

Shirley Lisk, manager of St. Joe’s at the Mall, said centers such as this one are necessary for seniors, especially during a pandemic. Isolation can be difficult, particularly on older residents who have social, spiritual, physical and mental needs.

Physically, a key concern is sarcopenia, she said.

“It’s a progressive muscle loss for inactivity. As you get older, you lose (muscle, balance and flexibility). You’re more apt to fall and suffer fractures. So activity, building muscle, maintaining muscle, is important,” Lisk said.

Socially, gyms get people out of the house and connected with others.

Spiritually, “We’re faith-based, so if people need to pray, we’re here,” she said.

Mentally, besides the talks and workshops with local physicians and health care workers, even in exercise classes, the instructors work mental games into the routines to work on brains as well as brawn.

The national trend of self-isolation and social distancing to stay healthy actually robbed many people of social, spiritual, physical and mental health.

“That’s what we lost in the pandemic. All of this fell to the wayside,” Lisk said.

In the lobby of the center, retired nurse Mary LaRose volunteers four days per week giving free blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen level checks. It both gets her around people and offers human contact to others.

“You do get to say hello to somebody,” LaRose said. “We get folks who aren’t members coming in and getting their blood pressure taken.”

Working her way through twists on one of the exercise machines in the St. Joe’s at the Mall gym, Mary Nagy, 83, of Cortland, said, “This is a great place to be because we’re staying healthy. I couldn’t wait to come back.”

On the next machine over, Nagy’s friend Kay Toschi, 87, of Cortland, said, “As soon as they opened, we were here. During the pandemic, if we didn’t get to come here, I think I’d shoot myself. Even the churches were closed.”

She said she feels comfortable and safe mixing with others considering all the precautions in place, including wearing masks. “I’d rather not, but you get used to it.”

Dave Lowman, 82, of Warren, said he works out at St. Joe’s at the Mall five days per week to stave off the effects of a congenital heart defect.

“I’ve been coming here for probably about five years. When the pandemic shut it down, it was pretty bad,” he said. “I’d walk in the neighborhood. It was difficult for me because I was used to coming out every morning and working out (on strength-training and flexibility equipment.) As soon as they opened up, I came back.

“If I don’t make it here, I miss it.”

After he was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat, Jack Criddle, 69, of Champion, ended up with a pacemaker. Since working out, his pacemaker readings have improved greatly.

His wife, Eileen, 69, said, “He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

During the shutdown, the couple walked two miles per day on the track at Champion High School. “This is better,” Jack said. “We’re doing things we never did before.”

“It makes it fun, even though I hate doing machines,” Eileen said. “When you don’t move, you can’t move. You have to keep working.”

Eileen Pressell, 71, of Niles said, “My husband loved it here. After he passed (in August 2015), this became my social circle.”

The people she stretches and sweats with are the same people who keep her spirits up and keep her going.

“I love it. It is my social life and it’s good,” Pressell said after a SilverSneakers class. “I’m feeling better. I’m trying to lose weight.”

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