Above: Left to right, Sharon Forrester, Alice Enright, Lisa Jobe and Linda LeTard enjoy getting fit; photos by Julie E. Bloemeke

It all began with a broken arm in her mid-sixties.

Susan Longley found that because of her injury, she was gaining weight, not having time to exercise and without full use of her arm. She told herself, “OK, this is the end. I am not going to do this anymore. This is not going to be my life.”

Susan Longley

At 65 she joined a gym, bought a year-long pass of appointments with a personal trainer and began taking water aerobics. “I thought, I love this class, I love teaching and I could do this.”

So now, at 68, she’s a personal coach, fitness trainer and Aquatic Exercise Association-certified water aerobics instructor.

After writing for an educational website and spending 50-plus hours a week in front of a computer, Longley found that she not only had a talent for teaching, but a calling and a passion for working with seniors.

“The seniors who exercise are a fantastic group of people,” she said. “The people I work with are just fun. They have a lot of energy, they have a love of life and they understand that they have to keep moving to be able to do other stuff, so it’s really energizing for me; it keeps me going.”

In addition to individual personal training sessions, Longley teaches three other classes at the Family Life Center at Second-Ponce De Leon Baptist Church in Atlanta. She began teaching Water Aerobics and has added Aquatic Gentle Joints and Water Strength.

Aquatic Gentle Joints is focused around posture and increasing heart rate with a consistent set of movements often involving props such as balls and pool noodles. The class is free and open to all members of SilverSneakers, a national premier fitness program, as is her other class, Water Aerobics.

Water Strength is designed for personal training students and is limited to three participants per session. It involves resistance and strength training by incorporating ankle weights, resistance bands and giving special attention to squats and lunges.

After doing personal training for two years and water aerobics for three, Longley noticed that she had an additional interest in working with seniors with arthritis. Her inspiration came partly from her personal training students.

“People were coming to me wanting personal training, but once they got on the machine, it was causing pain; it wasn’t working,” she said.

So Longley decided to pursue certification for the subspecialty of arthritis and water aerobics.

Longley’s gentle and knowledgeable manner of instruction was a huge draw for JoAnn Pope, 72.

“This lady right here is fabulous,” Pope said, gesturing toward Longley.

Class members line up along the edge of the pool for stretches.

A member of Longley’s water aerobics class and a personal training client, Pope sought out Longley after sustaining a ligament and ball-and-socket injury in May. “She is so understanding of old folks and as a personal trainer,” Pope said. “This injury put me in a very bad way, but she keeps me motivated. She doesn’t make me feel bad if I can’t do all the reps. She understands it takes time to get back into shape.”

Mary Dill, 76, another member of Longley’s water aerobics class, was impressed by Longley’s compassion and thoughtfulness when it came to working with students who had auditory struggles. Since hearing aids can’t be used in the water, trying to listen to an instructor in the pool proves to be a challenge.

“We have ladies here that can’t hear,” Dill said, “and Susan chooses to teach the class standing outside of the pool so that students in the water can hear better.” This also helps students to see the poses visually.

Dill, a long-time member of the class and its self-proclaimed social director, is enthusiastic about a number of aspects of the class. “You don’t have to get your hair wet.  You don’t have to be embarrassed in a bathing suit because it’s not like being at a gym with 22-year-olds in spandex.” One of the highlights for her and the other participants is Longley’s consistency in routine.

Lisa Jobe uses a pool noodle in her workout.

As if to echo this sentiment, Longley’s students chuckle or smile knowingly to one another when she mentions the names of certain movements. Today’s class, Aquatic Gentle Joints, relies on such sequences as “Cross Country Ski,” “Rocking Horse” and “Frog Jumps.”

When Longley says, “This is our NFL drill,” the students respond with laughter and nods as they begin to work their knees under the water’s surface. As Longley described it, “The sequence mimics running through a row of tires like football players do to develop agility…the students lift their knees and ankles high and visualize putting their feet through an imaginary tire.”

Longley finds it imperative to keep her workout routines familiar and consistent. “I use the same routines every class, just varying a few exercises each time. Most participants are regulars, so they know how to do the routines correctly and well. I don’t want to spend class time learning new exercises, but would rather do ones we know well and keep moving.”

Many of the students are also drawn to the camaraderie and sense of community present at Longley’s classes. And just as Longley proclaims the students energize her, she does the same for them.

Take Rose Fenner, 82, who started Longley’s class three months ago and rides a shuttle from Campbell Stone to attend each week. After suffering a near-fatal car accident in 1989, she has struggled with mobility. “I cannot walk without a walker on land, but when I get into the water I can do so much more,” Fenner said. “I couldn’t function without Susan’s classes. She’s wonderful and very motivating.”

Left to right, Patricia White, Mary Dill and Linda LeTard have a good time while working out in Susan’s class.

Dill comments on Fenner’s progress and how she continues to challenge herself as the result of Longley’s instruction. “Rose was so weak in the beginning,” Dill said, “but now she works the sequences harder.”

Not surprisingly, Longley has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. “I hate the idea of retirement. I can’t imagine retiring,” she said. “I’ll have my own business; I’ll have my own work until I can’t do it anymore. I think sometimes conversation around retirement has people accepting the idea that “I’m no longer useful.”

This is a concept Longley hopes to change. “I want to encourage the conversation about doing something more purposeful. That’s why fitness is part of my mission. Fitness is so much the foundation of it. If you’re not fit, you’re not going to feel like doing anything else.”

What else is in the works? Longley teaches meditation as a volunteer and practices herself. She’s also working on launching a podcast website called “Finish with a Flourish,” where she’ll interview seniors “who are doing something different with their retirement.”

“This, too, is part of my mission,” she said, “to have seniors talk to each other, inspire each other” and “to change the conversation about what aging and retirement really mean.”

For more information, visit susanlongley.com.

Susan Longley leads an aquatic exercise class at the Family Life Center in Atlanta.

Some perspectives for a Healthier and Happier Life

Susan Longley is not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but working with seniors in fitness has given her some ideas that may prove helpful to anyone turning over a new leaf in 2018.

  • Don’t make a list of resolutions you can’t keep. “I like to encourage people not to make any resolutions, but to rethink. Choose a new life for yourself and figure out what you would have to do to make that life happen, then those can be your daily goals.”
  • Look at the bigger questions. “Value yourself, value your friends, value your fitness and your contributions. See yourself as an elder, rather than an old person. Understand that the younger people in society really need you.” Longley observes that younger people tend to react more, whereas seniors value response over reaction.
  • Feed off the energy of what you want to accomplish. “Know that if you want to try something bad enough, exercise can be a part of it,” Longley said. Maybe that involves travel, a golf game, volunteer work or spending time with grandkids.
  • Learn how to meditate and practice honing that skill consistently. Visualize what you want to happen then take action to make it happen.
  • Be patient with yourself. “If you’re building your fitness from ground zero, which a lot of older people are, recognize that it takes time to learn how to do it.”
  • Find people and friends who value what you value. “If your friends aren’t doing the kind of things that you would like to do, find a new group of friends—not to ditch the old ones—but find a new group of people who are more interested in what you want to do. You might find more people in a volunteer situation, working on something that you value,” Longley suggested. “Become friends with those people so they can encourage you.”
  • Remember that what you eat is part of your fitness. “You know what’s good for you; find a way to eat what’s good for you. Redo your recipe box. If you have a favorite recipe, go online and see how other people prepare it in a way that’s healthier.”
  • Shift your focus. “Once you start moving toward your daily goals, a lot of support comes in. When you meet new people, things will happen that will support you. You may find an article in a magazine about cooking that you’d have skimmed over before—you wouldn’t have even paid attention to it—but once you shift your focus to ‘I want to be more fit, I want to have more purpose,’ then things start popping up in your awareness. I’d love to get that message across.”

Julie E. Bloemeke

Julie E. Bloemeke is a writer and poet based in metro Atlanta.