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Physiotherapists turn to the outdoors to help older adults exercise during COVID-19

Sept. 8 marks World Physiotherapy Day and in light of this, we’re featuring the Elder Care in the Park Exercise Series — a program created to keep seniors moving during COVID-19.

“Being out in nature has brought a lot of happiness into my life during this challenging time,” remarks Elizabeth Wilson. She has been participating in the Elder Care in the Park Exercise Series, an initiative to get seniors outside in local parks since June. 

For many, getting out of the house during COVID-19 has been a challenge. But for Elizabeth, it was exactly what she needed — a good mental and physical challenge. 

Finding a solution

“We’ve seen a significant difference in our patients’ physical and mental health. They enjoy the social interaction during the class. By being outdoors, we are able to ensure physical distance standards are met,” says Nicole Warren, physiotherapist at St. Paul’s Hospital Elder Care Clinic.  “Pre-COVID, we were running these classes in the physiotherapy gym. When we had to close our clinic due to COVID-19, it was difficult knowing our patients were alone, isolated and not motivated to keep moving. We were forced to transform how we deliver physiotherapy services to our older adult patients and I don’t think we knew how successful they would be. Once COVID hit, we transitioned to Zoom, which is a great alternative, but lacking the social element. There is something to be said about the impact the energy in the room can make, especially for those who may live alone.” 

The exercise classes have been taking place every Tuesday and Thursday, with a morning and afternoon session to meet the needs of the patients. The group meets at nearby Coopers’ and Nelson Parks, both accessible to those in the community. 

Encouraging strength and mobility

“Each hour class is different, and we tailor the class depending on who shows up,” states Warren. “We usually have 4-6 participants. They’ll go through a warm-up, then continue with some aerobic and strengthening exercises, followed by balance games and a cool down. Whenever possible, we use park infrastructure such as railings, benches and steps. Patients learn that they don’t need special equipment to exercise. We are hoping patients feel empowered to continue to regularly exercise independently in their community once they graduate from our class.”

“The classes we regularly ran in our clinic were not sustainable during a global pandemic — we knew we had to come up with a creative solution.” explains Susanna Johnston, also a St. Paul’s Hospital Elder Care Clinic physiotherapist. “Our goal is to create a safe and social outdoor environment that allows patients to get out of their homes and get moving again. We want them to feel stronger, more confident, and motivated to maintain their new found strength and mobility.”

The power of movement

“Our park exercise classes have brought new life to our job and to our patients. It’s incredible to watch them form friendships, appreciate their natural surroundings and get stronger with each class. We can’t underestimate the power of movement while outdoors,” says Warren. 

“It’s a really challenging time at the moment and it’s especially hard for those people who are a bit isolated to begin with. The toll on mental health is huge,” adds Johnston. “It is very rewarding to see patients light up during the class, especially knowing some of them live alone. The park exercise class has been a spark of joy, not only for the patients, but for Nicole and me as well. I think we all leave the class feeling renewed and energized. I’m grateful to our amazing patients who show up every week ready to sweat and have a laugh.”

“My favourite part about participating in the classes is enjoying the beautiful view. Every Tuesday, I bring a picnic to enjoy after the class,” says Wilson. “These classes have made me feel better about myself and believe it or not, they even made me a morning person!”

The physiotherapists want to keep the classes on through the fall, but need to determine a good location.

“As we approach fall, there are many variables that come into play. Specifically, location, as the weather begins to change,” says Warren. “Our hope is to continue these sessions as we know they have had a positive impact on many.” 

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