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Innovative program and coach help seniors stay ‘Fit for Life’

Bonnie Campbell started Project Strong to engage older adults; 'They tell me I am making a difference in their lives'

The class begins with a dynamic warmup — something to get the heart rate going, complimented by functional movements, stretches and mobility work that prime the muscles about to be used.

The warmup is then followed by a skill or strength focus with multiple moves, sets and reps.

Finally, participants will complete a group conditioning workout before finishing with mobility and static stretches. 

It sounds simple, but this isn’t your average fitness class.

Project Strong’s Fit for Life program in Collingwood is a strength and conditioning course targeted to older adults.

Bonnie Campbell founded Project Strong three years ago to engage seniors in classes that can carry over into every aspect of their lives. 

“It’s geared for what we can do, as opposed to the high powered stuff at the gym,” said Anne Stevens, who is nearly 80 years old and has been participating in the Fit for Life program for over a year now.

“I was a total klutz before I joined,” Stevens said with a laugh. 

Norma Desjardins agreed.

“A normal gym membership doesn’t work for me, I don’t get enough out of it," she said. "This works for me because I’m surrounded by like-minded individuals. It’s a friendly environment with a lot of instruction and input from someone who understands what our capabilities are, and encourages us to do better.”

Like most good things, it was a stroke of serendipity that led Campbell to become a coach. 

With a bachelor of science degree in physical education, a bachelor of education and 10 years spent teaching high-school gym classes, to say Campbell has a passion for fitness is an understatement.

Campbell moved to Collingwood with her husband and two young boys in 2011. At the time, she was heavily involved in CrossFit and was in the process of completing her CrossFit Kids, CrossFit Level 1 and CrossFit Mobility certifications. 

Through these courses, Campbell met Christina Prevett, a community-based physiotherapist who was working on her PhD at McMaster University.

Campbell’s father was going through a period in his life where he required a walker to walk, and suffered from a bad back, a bad heart and a bad hip. He tried everything, but nothing seemed to help him get better.

At the time, Prevett happened to live around the corner from Campbell’s father, and began working with him on basic functional movements. She managed to help him walk again without any assistance. 

“The seed was planted,” said Campbell. “There was a market for this."

Prevett approached Campbell with the idea of researching strength training in older adults as the basis of her PhD thesis. 

Campbell agreed to help, so Prevett acquired a grant from the Canadian Frailty Network and designed the study. Half of the participants were randomized into a conservative workout program and the other half in a more intense program using heavier weights.

Both programs ran for 12 weeks, with weight training sessions occurring three times a week under Campbell’s supervision in Collingwood and at another gym in Mississauga.

The results of the study showed vast improvements in both groups. None of the 34 participants sustained any injury due to the exercise program and, most surprisingly, none of them dropped out.

In fact, Campbell said her participants were so keen, and so happy with how strong they began to feel, they didn’t want to stop after the study ended. 

“Every one of them saw how it benefited their day-to-day life, it motivated them to keep going. They saw the direct impact the work they were doing in the gym had in other areas of their life,” said Campbell.

The anecdotes warmed Campbell’s heart, and are what kept her clients coming back again and again.

Campbell started conducting the classes more often, and it spread like wildfire. Without doing any advertising except for the initial study, she now has around 70 recurring clients and runs her classes four to six times per week. 

“I have goals for them and they have goals for themselves, but I tell each and every client when they start working with me, my goal is to keep them living independently for as long as they can,” Campbell said.

Her main focus is on functional movements, such as a squats, hinges, lunges, pushes and pulls. 

“They may seem like simple movements, but we have to be able to do those things to maintain independent living. Getting off of a toilet is a squat, getting up off the floor if you fall down, you need to be able to push yourself up and use your lower body in a lunge to get yourself back up,” she continued.

But for Campbell, it isn’t just about helping her clients live independently, but allowing them to enjoy the life that they live. 

“Ultimately, I want them to be able to enjoy the activities of life, outside of just day-to-day living,” Campbell said. “I want them to continue being able to hike and bike and ski and play tennis and golf, and even gardening. Whatever it is they enjoy doing.”

Campbell’s classes also focus on scalability. She said every movement she incorporates has an option or modification that will serve the same purpose. If a client has bad knees, or cardiac issues, she teaches them how to modify each movement so that it’s suitable for them. 

The classes are run on a drop-in basis, so clients don’t have to commit to a monthly membership. Campbell said she also has a lot of seasonal attendees, whether it be snow birds or cottage goers, so she created a flexible format that can fit into anybody’s schedule.

“I like the flexibility of the class. You pay by class, so you can come when you want,” said Stevens. “I’ve tried others, but this is the best class I’ve found, for me. It suits our lifestyle.” 

Stevens said the classes have helped her a lot with her balance.

“I find I’m much stronger and more stable since starting these classes. It helps you avoid falls, which are horrendous when you are our age.” 

Lou Fowler, also nearing her 80s, has an anecdote about two of her classmates that resonates with her most.

The two small women were walking with an elderly gentleman and he happened to fall. They looked at each other, braced themselves in a squat on either side of the man, and using their strength helped him get back up.

“They told us there is no way they would have been able to do that before attending Bonnie’s classes,” said Fowler.

And that’s just one story of many.

One of the senior adults attending Campbell’s program completed the Wasaga Beach Triathlon, despite never running five kilometres prior to joining Fit for Life. Another hiked up Blue Mountain for the first time in 15 years.

Campbell’s husband is an emergency physician, so between him and Prevett, Campbell has an abundance of support and knowledge to bounce her ideas off of when she has a client with a specific issue she hasn’t encountered before.

“My number one priority is keeping them safe. I think my fear of someone getting injured is what makes the program a success, because I am constantly taking classes and learning more and more in order to keep everybody moving safely,” said Campbell.

Campbell has made Project Strong her full time career, and it consumes her.

“They tell me I am making a difference in their lives, and I start to feel as though I am making a difference in their lives.”

She currently runs her classes out of the National Ski Academy and CrossFit Indestri. Although one day she dreams of opening her own gym, she likes the partnerships she has developed in the community. Her clients like the quietness of the NSA’s facilities, but the inspiration they get from watching members at CrossFit Indestri is an enticing mix.

All of Campbell’s clients are extremely active in the community, so for now, Campbell is just focused on helping them remain that way.

“I tell them they are my inspiration. I want to be like them. I want to keep doing this for as long as I can,” she said.

For more information on Fit for Life and Project Strong, head to Campbell's website.

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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