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Bone Builders Classes Develop Strength and Community

A Halloween-themed Bone Builders class over Zoom. Courtesy photo
Prior to the pandemic, were you ever strolling past the Senior Activity Center on Barre Street and had your attention drawn to the second floor windows? Perhaps you heard a group of people singing? Perhaps you looked up to see a group of people dancing to the music? If so, you might have witnessed the energetic ending of a Bone Builders class.

Bone Builders is a group exercise program that involves a combination of weight-lifting, stretching, and balance training. It’s an ideal way for people of diverse ages and fitness levels to exercise together and improve their personal health. This type of exercise first appeared at the Montpelier Senior Activity Center (MSAC) in the form of the Strong Living program in 2002. The Strong Living program, an outgrowth of Dr. Miriam Nelson’s research with older adults at Tufts University, was designed to slow or halt the loss of bone density and muscle mass as a consequence of aging. When a funding shortfall brought an end to Strong Living several years ago, the Retired Senior Volunteer Program via the Central Vermont Council on Aging stepped in and provided training for new and existing instructors in the Bone Builders program. The goals and methods of the Bone Builders program are very similar to those of the Strong Living program.

Bone Builders classes at MSAC are very popular and often are among the first classes to fill as registration opens for each term. When the pandemic shutdown occurred in mid-March last year, most Bone Builders instructors began offering their classes online via Zoom. This transition allowed many more people to register, since enrollment was no longer restricted by the dimensions of MSAC’s activity room. For the current winter term, which runs from the beginning of January until the end of March, MSAC is offering five twice-weekly Bone Builders classes on weekdays at various times ranging from early morning to early evening. At present, there are 161 students enrolled. 

Each of the five strength-training classes has its own distinctive vibe, and many students have been taking a particular class for decades. Some classes are chatty, and others are more serious in style, but all involve a liberal dose of socializing before and after class (and sometimes during). Being together twice a week, year after year, creates an environment that sparks new friendships and encourages students to bond with each other and with their instructors. Classes are always a mix of new and returning students; new students find themselves quickly integrated into the group.

Unlike many exercise classes, which cater to a specific fitness level, what makes Bone Builders special is the fact that a 60-year-old man who is recovering from a joint replacement can be found sitting next to an 80-year-old woman who is focused on maintaining her upper body strength. Both individuals can find the same level of challenge by lifting different amounts of weight with their arms and legs. Despite the disparity, they both challenge themselves and improve their fitness levels by doing what’s appropriate for their personal situations. Veteran students of Bone Builders classes frequently report enhanced range of motion, greater stamina, and more strength for chores such as shoveling snow. They also report more enjoyment of their beloved hobbies such as gardening or kayaking. 

Most Bone Builders classes run for 60 minutes, but a couple of them are 75 minutes long. Generally, they begin with a warm-up, which is followed by a series of arm and leg exercises with weights. Then there is core work to strengthen the abdominal muscles. Typically, balancing exercises and a cool-down follow. Many classes end with the opportunity to do a grapevine dance step around the room to peppy music. The grapevine step crosses the midline of the body, which is good for brain function. Dancing of any kind improves coordination and usually gives a further boost to moods that have already been boosted by exercising. 

Before the pandemic, MSAC offered over 80 weekly classes in a wide variety of areas including arts, humanities, and movement; all were very reasonably priced, both for residents of Montpelier as well as for residents of surrounding towns. This winter there are twenty-four classes online, and many are open to younger people, too. So, if you’re seeking a fun, communal experience, check out the offerings at MSAC: montpelier-vt.org/msac

You might find yourself singing and dancing afterwards.

Nancy Schulz was first trained in the Strong Living program in 2002 and now teaches a Bone Builders class online at MSAC. She looks forward to the day when she will once again be able to exercise with her students in person.