Wauwatosa seniors flexed their brain, diet and emotional muscles at the YMCA'S Fit Body, Fit Mind class last summer. The program's success prompted the YMCA to continue the program at the Brown Deer YMCA this January.
The class was the result of collaboration between the West Suburban YMCA and Luther Manor. Luther Manor had held previous classes on mental exercise but wanted to pair it with the YMCA's physical exercise classes for seniors.
Kathy Glaser, the manager of program and partnership development of Luther Manor, was much of the brains behind the class. She, along with Dawn Adler, coordinator of client communication at Luther Manor, used two University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee studies to sculpt the class.
The studies were titled "Can Exercise Improve Brain Function?" and "Can a Memory Club Help Maintain Cognitive Function?" Both answered their question with a "yes."
All aspects of health
The fit mind aspect of the class was the most heavily emphasized, with the majority of the class focusing on cognitive exercises to stimulate brain activity and memory retention. The fit body side came from the class' timing - it was held shortly after senior exercise programs - and the use of balance routines to improve memory.
While the class focused on mental and physical exercises, it also featured healthy eating habits. There was a food feast at the end of the sessions to promote proper nutrition.
Emotional health was incorporated alongside the other exercises. Participants evaluated their mental health and focused on ways to combat depression.
"Health is a holistic picture, and with this memory piece, I don't think any of this is singular," Janet McMahon, vice president of healthy living strategies for YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee, said.
The roughly 20 participants were given a mental evaluation before and after the class to measure their level of success. Many were able to improve their memory retention and balance.
"The class was good because we challenged ourselves at the beginning and end," participant Anita Bradley said. "It had excellent handouts and tried to open our minds to other things that were available to us."
Taking up the challenge
The first part of the program was spent learning how the brain works. The majority of the tasks from that point on focused on breaking the participants out of their mental comfort zones. Some tasks included using non-dominant hands to draw, saying the alphabet backward and using mnemonic devices to remember names.
"It made you use your brain in a different way while not being complacent in what you're doing," class member Dennis Kaun said.
This was the Metropolitan Milwaukee YMCA's first mental health program aimed specifically for seniors.
This class was the first collaboration between the Luther Manor and the YMCA, but it will probably not be the last. Both sides have expressed interest in continuing to partner on other projects.
"We're right on board with the YMCA's mission statement, and it's talking about valuing people throughout all stages of their life," Glaser said.
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