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Adult Fitness Pioneer Comes Full Circle in Active Aging Arena

Liz Merritt
December 22, 2017
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Deborah Redder is an adult fitness pioneer whose lifelong commitment to a healthier generation of older Americans began when most of us Baby Boomers were up to our eyeballs in careers and kids. The furthest thing from our minds was how exercise would shape our quality of life when we became senior citizens.

But guess what? That day has arrived. With the oldest Baby Boomers hitting 71 this year and the youngest at 53, our time has come.

Thanks to Redder and the legendary Mary Swanson – whose father’s heart attack 25 years ago became the inspiration for the Silver Sneakers fitness program – we have a well-earned place on the fitness spectrum that did not exist for our parents and grandparents. Redder co-created SilverSneakers with Swanson 25 years ago, and today she remains a vocal leader for adult fitness.

It Starts With a Vision

adult fitness pioneer

Deborah Redder leads a balance and stability adult fitness class in Chandler, Arizona.

“It all started with Mary’s vision, and the rest of us made it happen. It’s not just the shift in how people look at exercise; it truly led to the evolution of a generation,” says Redder, who wrote safety protocols and other elements essential to SilverSneakers’ long-term success.

“Mary was able to push that ball up the mountain because she just wouldn’t say no,” she says. “I’m the luckiest girl in the world. I helped to shift a paradigm in fitness.”

Redder, who is now 66 and retired, reflects on her life’s work. She spent nearly two decades as a head judge for the U.S. Gymnastics Federation in aerial gymnastics. There, she oversaw competition at the highest levels of the sport, including the World Games and Olympics.

The work was rewarding, but she felt a calling for older adult fitness at the behest of Swanson and the company they formed, Healthcare Dimensions. Today, SilverSneakers is owned by Tivity Health, Inc., a leading national provider of fitness and health programming

Coming Full Circle

adult fitness pioneer

81-year-old Shirley Hanschen has been taking group fitness classes for nearly 20 years.

On a recent weekday morning in an unpretentious gym smack dab in the middle of suburban Phoenix, I met Redder and her posse of active aging disciples for a balance and stability class.

It is clear she has not missed a beat when it comes to educating the masses. Retirement means she has more time to teach fitness classes for older adults every week, and she loves every minute of it.

“I work mainly now with adults who are healthy and fit,” she says. “They are very savvy and smart and know that if they stay physically active, it will ward off a certain amount of neurological deterioration as they age.”

“What I teach isn’t about me,” she continues. “It’s about my students and their desire to stay in age in place. Many of them are living alone and fighting for their independence. They are the true warriors.”

Move It or Lose It

Her students that day gather before class, sharing life experiences, fellowship and laughter. This is a fraternity of kindred souls who insist on living life on their terms – with mobility, flexibility and freedom. Most of them have been in Deborah’s class for years. They are survivors and see life from a perspective that a younger person cannot understand or know.

adult fitness pioneer

Kitty Strohmeyer, 92, is the grande dame of the Wednesday stability and balance class.

At 92, Kitty Strohmeyer is the grande dame of the group. A diminutive woman, she has a twinkle in her eye and smile for all. Strohmeyer has been attending class faithfully for four years and credits her upper body strength and balance to Redder’s instruction.

“She brings something very special to the class. I always feel better. My flexibility is better. And at my age, you’ve got to move or it won’t go!”

Her exercise buddy, 81-year-old Shirley Hanschen has been taking group fitness classes for nearly 20 years. She began in a water aerobics class and then gravitated to land.

She also credits Redder and the program for her mobility. “She’s a great instructor, and I really enjoy having her here,” she says. “I always tell people to just keep moving. It is the most important thing as we age.”

Community Support

Evelyn Ondrich, 77, lives with 11 fixed vertebrae in her back. This past fall, she underwent carotid artery bypass surgery and experienced a partially collapsed lung. “The first thing the doctor told me was to get back into this class. These gals (she motions to her classmates gathered around) have all been incredibly encouraging. We’re like a sorority,” she smiles.

“Every one of us has a story that is just as important as the next person. We all stay moving, even if it means coming here and having to sit in a chair the whole time. We do what we can at our own level, and Deborah encourages that.”

Indeed, for the next 45 minutes, all students are up, down, sitting, standing, moving, laughing and intently focused on Redder’s every move and instruction.

After class, students stack their chairs in the back of the room and agree to meet for lunch nearby. This community of like-minded seniors thrives not only from the workouts, but also from socializing and supporting one another.

Adult Fitness Pioneer

adult fitness pioneer

Redder surrounded by her devoted students at Stay Fit Gym in Chandler, Arizona.

Once her students have left the gym, Redder sits for a moment and reflects. “My life has really changed,” Redder explains. “I have five grandchildren now and am incredibly active. And, of course, I’m still promoting good standards in fitness practices.”

There’s nothing more satisfying than to see those people leave and do well,” Redder says of her students. “I’m at teacher at heart. I’ve always been a teacher. Even as the head judge for the U.S. Olympics, every four years I was part of changing the lives of seven people (the medalists), and the weight of that (the medalists) responsibility is enormous.”

Redder talks about her journey and the sense of purpose she gets from helping just one older person live a better quality of life. I ask her to elaborate, and she gets to the heart of the matter quickly.

“As you get older, you just really find your third stage of life to be completely different from your first and second stage,” she says. “You are totally dependent on your health status to live a meaningful life. And it’s impacted by the fact that nobody pays attention to you.”

Bringing New Meaning to Healthy Aging

I can see Redder’s expression become intense as she continues. “One of the cruelest things in aging is how you become invisible and disregarded. Just because you’re old doesn’t mean you’re dumb. When you find someone who actually cares about you and your health, that’s were the magic is. I help bring back that meaning to their health status.”

While she’s reticent to take credit for the impact she has had on adult fitness, Redder acknowledges her role and how it has changed her. “I just love it. It helps me stay relevant as an aging person myself. I still have tons of things that I want to experience in life.

“I’ve really learned an awful lot from my students. They’ve taught me better life lessons than I’ve taught them skills and drills. And I’m a much better person than I was 20 years ago because of them.”

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