Older adults have boosted their fitness routines since the pandemic began.
Erin Hurter knew she had to do something as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in mid-March 2020.
At the time, the yoga instructor was working as an industry development manager on behalf of Visit Sarasota County.
“My job was to reach out to all 520 of our businesses and check in, and it broke my heart to hear people sharing what it was doing to their business,” Hurter said. “It was at the height of our season.”
In May 2020, Hurter began teaching a free weekly yoga class held Tuesday evenings at Bayfront Park.
“One thing that I taught and know because of yoga is that we can’t change what’s happening in our world, but we can change our reaction to it,” Hurter said. “That’s kind of the premise of exactly how this started.”
The class has grown substantially after starting out with about 10 people. Dozens of people of all age groups space themselves out and attend the class. The turnout prompted Hurter to begin teaching a free Saturday morning class outside the Van Wezel Perming Arts Hall overlooking Sarasota Bay.
“I have had people tell me over and over this is their sense of community,” Hurter said. “This is giving them a purpose.”
The popularity of the classes is consistent with a U.K.-based study focused on physical activity before, during and after the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The research tracked the longitudinal weekly minutes of physical activity of more than 5,000 people using an app from January to June 2020. The only age group the study found to have increased physical activity since the pandemic was people 65 and older.
In mid-May when The Paradise Center in Longboat Key reopened, Executive Director Suzy Brenner said there was strong attendance at the facility with several safety measures in place.
“Not only did we have decent turnout, but I think we probably had our best summer ever,” Brenner said. “We increased our exercise offerings to include tai chi and qi gong and hula dance classes. And so many people came to try anything and everything because a lot of us were desperate for human interaction and a way to do it safely. ”
Brenner said The Paradise Center has filled a void for many people living in condominiums whose gyms closed because of the pandemic.
“The social interaction is such a huge part of life,” Brenner said.
The craving for human connection prompted downtown Sarasota resident Jane Reed, 73, and several of her friends in their 80s to attend Hurter’s yoga classes on a regular basis.
“Doing yoga outside is magical, and Erin is just a fabulous teacher,” Reed said. “Being out in the air where we don’t have to have a mask on, and we can social distance, and we can also be working all of our muscles, all of our joints and breathing in this great air with this beautiful, beautiful Sarasota Bay behind us, how could it get better than that? And watching the sunset?”
Reed also expressed her appreciation for Hurter’s instruction, which offers a variety of different modifications in many of the yoga poses.
“This is good because it’s not having to run or do something that requires a lot of the workout,” Reed said. “You’re doing it at your own pace, you're doing what you can do, and then you’re building on that.”
Hurter attributes her instructing abilities to what she calls “the gift of gab.”
“I talk the entire time, and so I can say, ‘This is modification one, two [or] three,” Hurter said. “I can give different modifications, and throughout the beginning of the class, the end of the class, throughout the class, I’m constantly saying: ‘This is not your neighbor’s yoga practice. This is not my yoga practice. This is yours.’”
Laura Horner, 54, said she considers herself more of a runner than a yogi.
“I needed a different kind of stress relief, and I don’t normally do yoga,” Horner said. “I hadn’t done yoga in years, but I needed to do something for myself that brought up that mental refresh as well.”
Horner considers the yoga classes as a welcome break from her role in the health care industry.
“I always am so grateful after I come down here and experience this,” Horner said. “My husband notices a difference when I get home.”
“I have asked of everyone that attends my class, I say, ‘You’re now part of this tribe, community,’ and the only requirement is that you have to do one random act of kindness every day,” Hurter said. “That needs to be done if you show up here.”
Reed mentioned the importance for people to stay active.
“As we age, if we can move, and if we can keep moving in some way, we are going to manage to stay healthier all the way around,” Reed said.
Brenner agreed, outlining the mental benefits of exercise.
“[The mental side is] absolutely just as important as the physical side,” Brenner said. “The best thing you can do for that is to get out and about, get out of your headspace and be with other people and just have fun.”