Linda Parko helps her husband John during a workout. (Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily)

Wyoming Senior Citizens Start Weight Lifting To Battle Disease, Improve Quality Of Life

in Wyoming Life/News/Health care

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By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily

Linda Parko never expected that her husband’s condition might improve. 

John was diagnosed with Parkinson’s several years ago and had been experiencing a steady decline in his mobility and balance.

But when the couple was offered an opportunity to participate in a strength training program for seniors, they thought it couldn’t hurt to try.

Now four months later, Linda said John’s condition has improved dramatically.

“In the beginning, John could hardly do any of it,” said Linda. “He had to hold onto something. And now he can do it on his own. So yeah, that’s a huge improvement.” 



Heavy Lifting

These seniors are part of a program at Wyoming Sport and Fitness in Cody that coaches people with aging bodies how to use weight training to improve their balance and stability. 

Now organizer Deb White, who’s part owner of the gym, said the program has been OK’d for a $625,000 grant from the Wyoming Department of Health for innovations in health. White said the money will allow the program to expand to other Wyoming communities.

“We’ve all been volunteers for a year, and then we saw this grant,” White told Cowboy State Daily. “And we thought, this is something that would save a lot of money – like the cost, even if all the people in here were getting paid, and the gym facility was getting paid, it would still cost less than one person breaking a hip.”

It Takes A Village

White launched a groundbreaking youth program at Cody High School 25 years ago called Cody CAN (short for Change Attitudes Now). But since her retirement from teaching four years ago, she has shifted her focus to helping people of all ages live their best lives.

“It takes a village, right?” said White. “To have healthy kids, you’ve got to have a healthy community.”

Aaron Nichols is one of the instructors for the program. He first met White when she was his ninth grade science teacher. How he’s helping get the program off the ground.

“Deb loves to start projects for community health, and me being kind of half medical, half strength and conditioning, I can interpret a lot of the clinical literature about the stuff, but also have the experience of a strength and conditioning coach,” he said.



Breaking Barriers

Nichols said part of his job is breaking the barriers that seniors may perceive when it comes to strength training.

“There’s a kind of pernicious cultural understanding of training, that it’s dangerous or that it’s for young kids, that I just thought was a super unaddressed issue,” he said.

In fact, Nichols said all of the movements the program teaches replicates activities of daily life. And because he also works as an EMT, he can see firsthand the benefits of the program.

“I work on the ambulance as well and you see how many people are falling throughout the day – rough estimate two a day maybe?” said Nichols. “It’s a seriously unaddressed issue, and seeing that side of it, it makes me even more motivated to be like, ‘Hey we need to do some training now, before it becomes impossible to even get up off the ground.’” 

Close To Home

White said that much of her motivation for the program was her own mother’s increasing fragility. 

White’s mother, Mary McDonald, turned 91 in November. White said when she started the program earlier this year, her mom could barely lift the bar itself with no weight on it.

“She started out deadlifting just the bar, just 45 pounds, and I think she’s up to like 70 pounds now,” said White. “And you gotta love it when a 91 year old is deadlifting 70-plus pounds.”

According to McDonald, her daughter’s idea has improved the lives of many others and herself.

“My balance is better,” said McDonald. “I have been rechecked for my balance, and it has definitely improved, they said 30%, and my breathing is better.”


Linda Parko talks about the benefits of seniors doing weight training. (Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily)

Improvements All Around

But the program is about so much more than just physical strength. 

Participants say they’ve also seen an improvement in mental acuity and attitude.

And McDonald added that the social aspect of the program is a big part of its success.

“If you’re trying something new, you have three or four members in your group, all of them clapping encouragement, ‘You can do it, you can do it,’” said McDonald. “I just think everything is so positive.”

And White pointed out that with the program, there’s an opportunity to bridge a generation gap.

“Normally, we also have high school kids who come in and help,” White said. “And so they come over and just, you know, spot them, act as caddies, most of them have been in weight training classes, so they can give them a little bit of point, you know, point your toes, flex your foot, that kind of thing.”

Growing Participation

White said that just in Cody, between 15 and 22 people show up twice a week for strength class.

“And then on Wednesdays, after the strength class, they have yoga – yoga for grumpy old people,” said White. “And we’re working on getting the tai chi person back in on Fridays.”

White said that the Department of Health grant will fund the Cody program for 28 months and allow it to add similar programs in Casper and Cheyenne. 

“We have a guy at the University of Wyoming who’s a grad student who’s going to do all our data analysis for us,” she said. “He’s also a certified strength coach, and his specialty is geriatric fragility. So, we kind of have the perfect combination of people.”

And while she is more than pleased with the physical progress she’s seen in the seniors participating in the Cody program, White said the biggest win is the change in attitude.

“I think all of these people now, even if they end up moving to Arizona someday, they’ll feel confident walking into a gym.”

Quality of Life

Parko pointed out that although strength training isn’t a miracle cure for her husband’s condition, the quality of life for both has gone up tremendously since beginning strength training.

“With Parkinson’s, it’s never going to get better,” she said. “But we can maintain, and that’s what this program is helping us do.”

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