One morning recently I was at the West Vancouver Seniors’ Activity Centre (for those fifty-five and older) to renew my membership. As I did, a horde of men of a certain age, all dressed in black t-shirts, streamed in the front door. Dozens and dozens and dozens of them. I was utterly amazed. Who were they?
“These are the Fit Fellas,” I was told, “and they are here for their coffee and cinnamon buns.” When I followed them into the large cafeteria, it was full of these men. Apparently Fit Fellas was started 41 years ago as a twice-a-week fitness class for eight older men. It has grown to 195 members who meet up to eight times a week for a fitness class “just for guys.” Led by four qualified volunteer trainers, they do aerobics, strength training, coordination, balance, stretching, all mixed with “plenty of laughter” and optional social events. The youngest is 62 years of age, the oldest 97 years, with an average age of around 76. Their membership is full, and there is a waiting list to join. Over 45% of the members have participated regularly for over ten years and 70% for over five years.
Their routine is to meet each morning from 7:50 to 8:50 at the West Vancouver Community Centre gym (two or three days a week, as they wish) and then adjourn to the cafeteria for coffee and refreshments. Anyone celebrating a birthday buys cinnamon buns for the group. They keep in touch by email and a quarterly newsletter, volunteer in various community groups and events, and take part together in other sports, competitions, pub nights, and fund-raising activities. As much as the exercise, their goal is to have fun and build friendships.
Their success has attracted the attention of the Department of Gerontology at Simon Fraser and the School of Kinesiology at the University of British Columbia. They have been the subject of Masters theses, academic conferences across North America, and community workshops on the Lower Mainland. UBC Professor Mark Beauchamp claims, “There is no other program similar to or as successful as theirs,” anywhere else.
In “an effort to develop a framework for use by others,” The Canadian Institute for Health Research funded a two-year study conducted by UBC, in partnership with the Vancouver YMCA, for targeted studies on the Fit Fellas model. The Group-based physical activity for Older Adults (GOAL) Trial involved close to 600 females and males over 65, participating three times a week, free of charge, in single-gender and both-gender classes conducted at three YMCA locations. Data collection ended in August 2015. The aims of the study were to assess how older adults stick with their physical activity over three months and six months, and whether group cohesion and enjoyment affected their adhesion.
That very morning, Dr. Beauchamp presented a plaque to Fit Fellas and a $500 honorarium to the West Vancouver Seniors’ Centre for their support of the research.
The statistics on physical activity by older adults are sobering. According to Statistics Canada, by 2036, 25% of Canadians will be over 65 years of age. At present, 50% of provincial and territorial healthy spending is on older adult care. Although a clear link has been found between physical activity, improved functional capacity, and reduced risk of chronic disease, only 13% of Canadians over 65 engage in the recommended 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per week.