Fitness Program Aims to Improve Health of Local Seniors

Ella Castle

Every Tuesday at the Armory, over 100 local seniors gather for an hour of exercise, fitness lessons, and healthy living conversations with faculty, staff, and students from Columbia University Irving Medical Center.   The Seniors AIM High program, a collaboration between The Armory Foundation and the CUIMC Office of Community […]

Every Tuesday at the Armory, over 100 local seniors gather for an hour of exercise, fitness lessons, and healthy living conversations with faculty, staff, and students from Columbia University Irving Medical Center.  

The Seniors AIM High program, a collaboration between The Armory Foundation and the CUIMC Office of Community Service Programs, provides free fitness opportunities for older adults ages 60 and over from Washington Heights-Inwood, Harlem, and the South Bronx. Starting at 10 a.m., coaches from the Armory lead 60-minute fitness sessions including group exercises and a walk around the track. The fitness session is followed by conversations with Columbia physicians, including Rafael Lantigua, MD, professor of medicine and associate dean for community service at Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Nancy Chang, MD, associate professor of medicine at VP&S. Participants receive incentives, such as program T-shirts, fitness tracker watches, and athletic shoes, as they progress in the program. 

Woman runs on a track while a doctor cheers her on
Nancy Chang, right, cheers on participants as they run relay races on the Armory track. Photo: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

“As physicians, we recognize the value of physical fitness in overall health,” Lantigua says. “We are delighted to partner with our neighbor, The Armory Foundation, to provide health education and wellness activities to help our seniors thrive.” 

Over 30 CUIMC volunteers have participated in the weekly program, including faculty, staff, and students from VP&S, the Mailman School of Public Health, and the Taub Institute. Students from Mailman’s Learning, Evaluating, and Assessing Resources and Needs in Informational Technology (L.E.A.R.N.I.T.) program volunteered to help seniors with the new fitness trackers. Residents from the Department of Medicine lead weekly healthy living conversations in English and Spanish. Conversations focus on issues related to healthy aging, including how to exercise as you age, diabetes, vaccines, falls, hypertension, and how to make the most of a doctor’s visit. Presenters devote time for questions, and participants are eager to engage. 

“The Armory is delighted to welcome our neighborhood seniors to the AIM High Program,” says Rita Finkel, co-president of The Armory Foundation. “Creating a program in a partnership with CUIMC gives the program particular depth, unlike any other program of its kind.”

Fitness coach guides participants through group stretches after their workout
Fitness coach Phyllis Spencer, center front, guides participants through stretches after their workout. Photo: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

During the fitness session, Armory fitness coaches Phyllis Spencer and Francyna Evans energetically lead participants in a variety of exercises tailored for all levels of fitness ability. Spencer and Evans promote positivity and mental health throughout the sessions, too. They encourage participants by leading chants like “love yourself better” as they exercise together. 

“What I love about this program is that it is all inclusive, for all shapes, sizes, and ages,” Spencer says. “We have this world-class facility, but you don’t have to be a world-class runner. It’s about small, simple movements that can benefit everyone.” 

Participants have expressed their gratitude for the program, and Evans says that leading the sessions is just as fulfilling for the instructors. 

“When I started this, 30% of the group was sitting and now everyone is standing and some are even sprinting. There is nothing linear about this growth,” Evans says. “It really gives me energy and fuels my week, it is such a rewarding feeling.” 

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