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Seniors find health, friends in fitness


If there’s one word to describe the members of Sandy Sneakers, an exercise group for seniors, it’s “vivacious.” They have the energy of a 30-year-old, the enthusiasm of a 5-year-old and the social life of a 16-year-old – and they attribute it all to Sandy Sneakers and exercise.
“Sandy Sneakers targets the things we need and keeps us from going backward,” said Judy Smith, who has participated in senior exercise classes for about six years. “I’m not Wonder Woman, but I’m not that old lady in a rocking chair.”
Smith and her fellow Sandy Sneakers members are doing the right things to make their golden years healthy and vibrant, according to experts. Amy Stewart, certified personal trainer at Back to Basics Fitness on Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington, said exercise prevents and delays diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and osteoporosis, and aids with mental and emotional health as well.
Exercise helps improve memory, and it wards off depression by increasing endorphins, she said. When retirees and seniors exercise in a class, they also gain friends and are more motivated to exercise, Stewart added.
Sandy Sneakers offers all the benefits Stewart mentions and more. As its classes are geared to seniors (though a few 40- and 50-year-olds are bona fide Sandy Sneakers members too), the pace is a little slower than typical exercise classes in gyms.
However, that doesn’t mean the seniors don’t get a good workout. Sandy Sneakers members do lots (and lots) of squats and lunges, upper body work using exercise bands and cardio. The classes also include exercises specifically geared toward seniors, including those that improve balance, coordination, posture and body-mind connection. The seniors are encouraged to work at their own pace, and even those who never exercised before or are in their late 70s and 80s feel at home in the classes.
Members soon see the results. In addition to sporting some well-toned muscles, they maintain, and often improve, their fitness levels. When doing things around the house, the exercisers also find they have more stamina and strength. MJ Shalanski, the group’s organizer, is a case in point. When Shalanski’s husband tried to help her lift a couple of 40-pound packages, he found he wasn’t needed.
“I picked those babies right up,” she said.
The program also helps seniors prevent or recover from injuries. For example, the classes helped Smith get back to herself after surgery. She said she could adapt the classes so she didn’t “injure what was fixed,” and they enabled her to expand on the work she did in physical therapy to regain strength and flexibility.
Ann Hood, another long-term exerciser, said she found that by participating in the classes, she no longer needed a cortisone shot in her shoulder every six months.
Another way exercise can benefit seniors is by providing a ready-made social group. In addition to meeting for lunch once a month, Sandy Sneakers members regularly go out for breakfast, play cards and engage in other activities. These casual get-togethers lead to deep and lasting friendships.
Such is the case for Mary Jane Groszkowski, who recently moved to Wilmington to be near her children after her husband passed away. Groszkowski didn’t know anyone else in the area, but Sandy Sneakers soon remedied that situation.
“It’s not just exercise,” Groszkowski said. “I made so many new friends. I feel better physically and emotionally. I feel happy. I’m a much more positive person.”
The friends made through Sandy Sneakers are there for bad times as well as good. When a member has an injury or falls ill, they have the full support of the group. “We’ve all gotten to care about one another and want to continue that,” said Smith.
Sandy Sneaker friendships have been especially important during COVID, members said. Unlike many elderly people who have been isolated during the pandemic, these seniors always had a social outlet. They attended the classes, which are held outside, and members often got together while social distancing, Hood said.
Although Sandy Sneakers is an informal exercise group, it is based on a solid fitness foundation. The exercises are culled from Silver Sneakers, a national exercise program for seniors ages 65 and over.
When the Silver Sneakers program at Assertive Athletics and Fitness was disbanded due to COVID, Shalanski and Sandy Sneakers’ instructor Shannon Rowe were determined to keep the program going. They contacted the Silver Sneakers members, made a database of the program’s exercises, came up with a new name and held classes outside in a parking lot twice a week.
More than a year-and-a-half in, Sandy Sneakers has evolved. There are set routines for the classes, which are held Monday through Thursday at Carolina Beach Lake, and the group has grown from 12 to about 30 members.
Although Sandy Sneakers’ leaders would like the group to continue to grow, overall, they have the same goals as when they started – to provide an exercise class for seniors that includes everyone and facilitates friendships.
The goals for many Sandy Sneakers members have remained the same too – to make new friends and maintain their fitness so they can do the activities they enjoy.
“My goal is to keep on keeping on,” said the 84-year-old Hood. “Through exercise, I haven’t lost anything. I’m still doing what I was doing at 35. I’m keeping it at that level.”

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