March 22, 2023

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Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County Executive Director Mary P. Breyette (top right) leads daily Senior Fitness Program classes for participants here, nationally and globally since the pandemic.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County Executive Director Mary P. Breyette (top right) leads daily Senior Fitness Program classes for participants here, nationally and globally since the pandemic.
PLATTSBURGH — Senior fitness is Mary P. Breyette’s passion.
For the last 15 years, she has led the weekday program for Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County.
The coronavirus pandemic didn’t trip her up.
Breyette Zooms to participants, local, national and global and guides them through a a range of classes including “Range of Motion,” “Growing Stronger-Strong Bones,’ “Chair Chi,” “Growing Stronger/Balance” and another “Range of Motion” class.
“It’s evolved, obviously,” said the executive director of the Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County.
“Basically, we had the contract with the University of Vermont Healthcare Network for providing, not senior particularly but mostly it ended up being seniors, so doing fitness programming. Getting people into healthier lifestyles. So that’s how it started.”
The Senior Fitness program offered a variety of classes from arthritis, range of motion to “Strong Bones,” an Osteo class out of Tufts University, which focuses on strong bones, muscles and balance.
Breyette brought in “Chair Chi,” which was developed by Pat Griffith.
“I originally did it because we were looking at working with clients with COPD,” Breyette said.
“I ended up not getting that contract, and we actually use it as a down day on Wednesday between all of our exercise programs. It’s a mindfulness, breathing, gentle stretching class.”
Breyette also teaches a limited class to Robert S. Long residents only.
“Everyday, we run a class from 9 a.m. to 10,” she said.
“With the pandemic, it went from in person to live streaming. We were able to do that because we have good collaborators. Really important. Senior Planet of the North Country, they host us now two days a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. All our classes are online, actually online live. It’s not taped.
Pre-pandemic, Breyette conducted a class two days a week at Senior Planet.
“The Office for the Aging has a contract called Senior Gym,” she said.
“So, they financially support these programs through that contract.
“Senior Planet, they were my collaborators. We started out that I would bring another class free of charge to their site for their participants. Now, they are the Zoom host twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
CCE Clinton hosts the classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
“Except for Chair Chi, these are all evaluated programs, which is really important,” she said.
“Evaluated programs meant they have been tested. Research has been done. The results are what they say they are. You get what you see. They are true and tried. We do not record any of those program because they are evaluated, so therefore I am actively engaged with my class.”
During the pandemic, many people Zoomed out with so much screen time to connect for work, school, family and friends.
“We have not found that with this class,” she said.
“My participants say we are a community. The first year it was all about physical health, my gym clothes, this is where I can get exercise. Year two was about mental health.
“’Thank goodness you’re here. You are the reason I get out of the bed. You are the reason I get dressed in the morning. I feel I am not by myself. I feel like I’m in a community.’”
The participants swap weather reports in Hawaii, Costa Rica and Montreal.
“We have people from all over the world participating, but definitely all over the country in addition to our Clinton County residents.”
Senior Planet is a national program with a big network, but Breyette’s reach was extended by a friend telling a friend telling friend.
“During the height of the pandemic, this is how siblings and neighbors were seeing each other in person,” she said.
“I had Miss Irma and Miss Ada, the only time they got to see each other face-to-face was in Zoom class. They are best friends. I have my Florida group that goes down ever year, so they get to stay engaged.”
Senior Fitness has gone from 2,000 participants a year to 2,000-plus participants per month.
“Think that’s an impact?” she said.
“Oh, yeah.”
Survey data was crunched from 348 people who take class five days week.
Breyette is a lifelong physical education and health and safety person.
“We talk about it that we all need it,” she said.
“I personally have osteoporosis. I teach the class, and I’ve been teaching it for years. So can you imagine what I would be like if I weren’t?”
Participants share information, have become friends, support for each other, and celebrate holidays and milestones such as cancer remission.
“We really engage in daily, friendly conversations,” she said.
“Before and after class, not during class. Class is class. Class starts, class is on. I adapt the class exercises to meet the needs of the students.
“Like Monday our Range of Motion class for the Arthritis Foundation, can be done standing up. But I wanted to offer a class that everybody could do, so we offer that class seated. There is some standing up to it, but the majority of the class is seated.”
Breyette adapts the exercises to where the participants are physically, and she offers suggestions.
Tuesday morning, she had 245 people in class.
“We always say this is how you start out slow,” she said.
“Don’t hurt yourself. We really try to individualize the class under the circumstances that we have.”
The Eastern Adirondack Healthcare Network initially launched the program.
“I really cannot say enough for my collaborators, which are the Office for the Aging in Clinton County and Senior Planet of the North Country,” she said.
“Without these guys, you know … This has been offered to our community members. Our residents here are taking advantage. Yes, we wish more would. It’s also caught on like fire. It’s free. You can come one day. You can come once a month. You can once a year.”
Breyette takes attendance, and her regulars email her if they are not going to make a class.
“We are really a community who look forward to everybody being there,” she said.
“So when you’re not there, you’re missed. That’s been a real saving grace. One of my participants emailed me and she had research with seniors had come out that seniors were even more depressed and feeling more isolated with Zoom. She said,
‘Clearly, they didn’t include your class.’ I love it. That’s like the best.’”
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