Think you can’t exercise? No New Year’s resolution for you...You’re too old, too sore, too sick, too troubled? Don’t tell that to Vickie Velasco, 76. The creator of the Feeling Fit Clubs in 1999 now often struggles for every breath with severe emphysema, but that doesn’t stop her from leading two clubs twice each week. When she can’t catch her breath, she pauses long enough to put oxygen on her back and the cannula in her nose, then she revs up her class again.
“I don’t let my condition define me and I tell my participants the same thing,” says Velasco.
Feeling Fit Clubs initially targeted people who would otherwise not exercise and who were at risk of acute health problems. The program has expanded to include all ability levels. The program focuses on flexibility, strength, balance and endurance. The goal is to help older adults maintain their functioning and remain independent. All moves can be performed from a seated position, but participants are urged to stand for most of the class.
Vickie supervised the Health Promotion Unit for Aging & Independence Services (AIS) when she and others on a task force created the clubs.
“I wanted to call the program a ‘club’ so that everyone would feel
included,” says Velasco.
Shay McKelvey, an exercise physiologist and registered nurse, researched potential exercises and helped create the curriculum. Vickie and gerontologist Kelly Ferrin took the idea out into the community. They started with six classes; now there are 28 at 23 locations.
“Vickie saw the vision for a fitness program that would reach the physiological, psychological and social needs of older adults,” says Gretchen Vurbeff, the Feeling Fit Club program’s exercise physiologist. “Her warm and passionate personality really connects with seniors as she talks about the benefits of the Feeling Fit Club.”
After retiring from AIS in 2003, Vickie was still committed to the success of the program and has continued teaching.
During a recent class at the Neighborhood House, Vickie slips a music CD into her portable player, helps participants get the right weights and stretch bands for their ability and starts motivating: “This will do you good, get your heart going, get your circulation going...”
She delights when one man who had been sitting finally stands up and follows her balance exercises. She knows all the participants well and praises their accomplishments, sometimes using the fluent Spanish she learned from five years in the Peace Corps in Central and South America. Despite her challenges to breathe at points, Vickie keeps the mood upbeat and positive. She has a wholehearted laugh that gets everyone smiling and laughing with her.
“I’ll make a fool of myself just to keep them involved,” she says. “I growl and they growl back. If they’re having fun, they don’t notice that they’re exercising.”
Not long ago, Vickie cut her classload in half because of her condition; “I’ve been having more and more episodes where I get clogged up.” She gave up working with a couple of her long-time Feeling Fit Clubs, including one of the original six groups, which deeply saddened her. Each club thanked her with a well-attended party to acknowledge how much she had meant to them.
Vickie is realistic about her situation, but remains “spunky” as one class participant called her. “Never underestimate the will of the human spirit,” says Velasco.
At the end of her Neighborhood House class, she asks the attendees to close their eyes and relax:
“What a blessing it is to be alive today,” she says to them. “We have no guarantees, but we’re here today. Thank you for today; it’s a blessing. We’re all here together; that’s another blessing.
“I’ve been sick and thought about not exercising today, but I thought of each of you. Even when you don’t feel good, you still come in here. Everyone in here has physical issues but you still fight on. It makes you stronger. Don’t let anything stop you; that’s a blessing, too.”
Join a Local Feeling Fit Club
You can be part of the Feeling Fit phenomenon! The clubs offer social interaction and build self-esteem in a relaxed, non-threatening environment. Participants say they have better balance, greater strength and flexibility, enhanced sleep, improved mood, better digestion, more relief from arthritis and more resistance to chronic illnesses. To join a class near you, call (858) 495-5500, ext. 3 and leave your name, number and address.
The Feeling Fit Club is also broadcast on County Television Network at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Cox Ch. 19 or 24; Time Warner Ch. 85 and Uverse Ch. 99 and scroll.
Article written by Ellen Schmeding, Director, Aging & Independence Services