Six women, ranging in age from 69 to 88, drifted into a large room at the Hale Senior Activity Center one recent morning, sat down on straight-backed chairs arranged in a circle, and kicked off their shoes. They were ready for what one participant called "creative wiggling."
Creative wiggling, though, doesn't fully describe what they are about to do — an exercise program called Ageless Grace. Their instructor, Patricia King, began teaching this class in September 2011, shortly after Ageless Grace was launched.
The program consists of different types of movements, all performed to music while sitting in a chair. Students do what they can given their particular ailments and levels of flexibility.
King, a longtime instructor of Nia, an exercise combining aerobic dance steps with moves from yoga and the martial arts, finds gratification in helping the older participants of Ageless Grace maximize their balance and flexibility.
"It takes about 21 days to make something a habit," King said. "The object of Ageless Grace is to put on fun music and move to it for 10 minutes a day for the rest of your life."
Twenty-one flashcards are the basis of the 45-minute session. Each student takes a turn drawing a card naming a different motion, called a "tool." By the time participants have gone through all 21 tools, they have exercised all parts of their bodies.
One woman took a card entitled "geometry," and King put the jaunty song 76 Trombones on the CD player. Following their instructor's lead, the women clapped their hands as they raised and lowered each foot, five times per side, or moved their arms to simulate a circle or a triangle.
King, 66, asks the students to imagine the geometric shapes.
"These exercises will open your neurons," she said. "You're doing movements to match images you have in your head."
The idea, King said, is to exercise the mind and body simultaneously by envisioning the image suggested by the card, such as spaghetti spine or juicy joints.
Depending on the tool, the women stretch their legs, necks and spines, or wiggle joints in their toes and fingers. They might also lift or swing their limbs.
Another student picked the card reading "juicy joints." To a jazzy Latin beat, the women rotated their wrists, ankles and shoulders. They lifted their knees, swung their arms and pushed their toes up and down.
"Look at your fingers," King said. "You have joints there, too!"
Someone picked "Spaghetti spine."
"Let's slither like a snake," King called out, wriggling in her own chair. "Feel it from your tailbone to your neck."
Ageless Grace is an organic movement rather than choreographed, she said.
"It's up to me to facilitate the moves so the students can follow me and yet exert just the right amount of pressure for their own bodies."
This new exercise regimen evolved from years of work by its founder, Denise Medved, 60, of Hendersonville, N.C. Medved had been in the fitness industry for some 30 years when she started Ageless Grace in 2011. Her mother's 2003 diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease inspired the fitness expert to learn more about the mind.
"That disease got me interested in how the brain works and I wanted to research it," she said.
Following her research, which took seven years, and several pilot programs in hospital settings in her native North Carolina, Medved set out to create a program to help people remain mentally and physically sound into old age. Ageless Grace was born.
Medved launched it with a book, The Ageless Grace Playbook: 21 Tools for Lifelong Comfort and Ease, as well as flash cards and several DVDs. "In just 22 months we had more than 425 certified teachers and thousands of students in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa," she said.
The goal, she said, is to help the brain change its form and function over the course of a lifetime, creating new neural passages and thus keeping the mind and body healthy into older life. The act of envisioning a move, such as a slithering snake, while physically imitating the snake, forces the mind and body to work together.
King was drawn to this program, she said, by the music — mostly swing, rock 'n' roll and show tunes — and the potential health benefits, including increased mental acuity, balance, flexibility and pain management.
Dunedin resident Judy Bertram, 69, began the class in the fall after reading an ad in the Times.
"The description said it was an aerobic exercise in a chair that would help with balance and getting old gracefully," she said. "I had a knee replacement two years ago and still have limited mobility."
Bertram said the class has helped her in many ways.
"I feel more energized," she said. "I find I can accomplish more when I leave."
Several of the women in King's class, including Barbara Blake and Nancy Booth, have a history of back problems. Blake, 71, said she has felt the difference since she started the class some months ago.
"I have a fused spine and have had three back surgeries," she said. "My joints don't move, but the exercises help me loosen up the muscles around the fused joints."
Booth, 69, has spinal stenosis.
"I wanted to avoid surgery and injections," she said, "so I looked for exercises to do."
Booth said when she does Ageless Grace movements, as well as other types of exercise, she remains pain-free.
King stresses the aerobic benefits of these exercises.
"You are moving systemically in your chair," King said. "It's amazing how much exercise you can do sitting down."
Correspondent Elaine Markowitz can be reached at [email protected]