By Benjamin Cohn, Woodfin – Mary Heard, a 26-year-old personal trainer from Charlotte, North Carolina, helps folks in Buncombe County aged 65 and older maintain their independence through strength training. She graduated from College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Heard works as a trainer for Woodfin’s YMCA and instructs our more venerated citizens on procedures and techniques designed to combat loss of bone density through low-impact and body-weight resistance training.
The Tribune recently had a chance to interview Heard about her work with older residents.
Questions: Tell me about the demographics as far as age and health requirements in Buncombe County?
Heard: I find that Buncombe County is definitely, at least coming from Charleston is a lot older of a population. When you go out in Asheville versus when I would go out in Charleston, the demographic is older. They have more offerings for an older demographic, especially here in the Y. I’d consider our [Woodfin YMCA] age range more of the retired age range. We get those snowbirds that come through every six months.
They usually always come back. My clientele, most of them are over 65. I’ve got about ten clients and I’m pretty positive they’re all over 65. Lots of information has come along [through] the years, from the shaking belts all the way through all the other fads of exercise. By the time you’re 65, you’ve gone through all of those fads…and you’re confused on which ones work and which ones don’t. A lot of them [older clients] are going through and having doctors appointments where they’re saying, “You have to start working out or you’re going to lose your independence.”
So they come to me and they say, “I don’t know what to do.” We offer three times a week [a class for] strength training level one and one time a week strength training level two that they can join in. Working with that population, the reason they’re there is their doctor has told them they have to add in some type of exercise, but they don’t know where to start.
Question: What sort of health-related challenges face the older population in the area who want to start exercising?
Heard: A lot of people when they come through, the number-one diagnosis [is] they have osteoporosis or osteopenia or [are] on their way to that. Their bone density is very low, meaning their bones are very fragile. Resistance work, basically strength training, trains your body to keep the bone density.
If I just walked through and used gravity, my bones would think ‘this is really easy, we already know how to hold ourselves up.” But, as you go through and you lift heavier things, your bones are like ‘okay, I’ve got to get a lot stronger if I want to hold an extra 25 pounds on top.’ That’s one of the main reasons the doctor says, ‘you have osteopenia’ or ‘you’re on you’re way to osteopenia,’ you have to start strength training. You can gain bone density; it’s just going to take a little longer.
The longer you go without strength training, the more bone density you’ll lose. The other thing for maintaining your independence, most of the things that put people into nursing homes are falls. You fall, you have a bad bone density, you don’t have the muscle to back up, you have a break from just a simple fall. Heard: They end up having to be in a nursing home. One of the hardest things that I’ve found is working with people’s fear of the ground. There’s obviously the fear of never being able to get back up. That’s one of the main questions that comes to stretching, flexibility, strength training is, ‘can we do things from the ground?’ and if not, ‘how do we learn to respect the ground again?’
Communicating the reality of threats posed by low bone density is a critical task and individuals like Heard make it their mission to inform and protect some of our most vulnerable citizens one day at a time.