For weeks, IDEA member James L. Bertram had gently tried to encourage Ann to join one of his exercise classes. “I’m too old to exercise,” she’d inevitably reply. But Bertram, who lives in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey, didn’t want to give up on the 83-year-old. He knew from experience teaching other assisted-living residents that his program would enliven her.
One day Bertram passed by Ann’s room while walking to his class. “You’re looking mighty young today,” Bertram innocently teased her. Ann smiled. She then shocked Bertram by agreeing to participate in class. Bertram escorted Ann to a seat beside one of his die-hard regulars, Mary, who is 101 years old. He introduced them and then quizzed the centenarian.
“Mary, at what age would one be too old to exercise?”
“You are never too old,” she quickly responded.
Ann is now a regular in class, and the duo have formed a friendship.
Bertram witnesses this type of transformation on a regular basis in his role as a personal fitness trainer at an assisted-living facility. Although he must consider a wide range of physical challenges when designing programs, he finds his work extremely rewarding and is eager to share information and inspiration about what he calls “the forgotten population.”
Bertram’s fitness career was triggered more than 25 years ago when he was an enthusiast working out regularly in a fitness facility. “Fellow members often asked me about my lifting techniques and for advice,” he says. “I made the decision to educate myself and went on to earn my personal trainer certification.” Bertram’s first client was a neighbor who was on a national sailboat racing team. “He needed help in building endurance, strength and balance,” Bertram says. “Soon thereafter, another member of the racing team requested training, and my part-time career as a personal trainer began.”
Bertram “weaned” his way out of the corporate world and entered the fitness industry full-time. He opened a small fitness club with his wife, who is also a personal fitness trainer. They built the club from the ground up and prided themselves in running a business with a TLC approach. The inclusive atmosphere drew many older adults. “As our senior membership grew, I recognized the need to offer programs, classes and training services to meet their special needs.”
During this time, Bertram’s father required surgery that left him partially paralyzed and under the continuing care of an assisted-living facility. After he finished his physical therapy, he still needed minimal restorative therapy. “The physical therapists did what they could, but it was up to my father to continue on his own,” Bertram says. “As any fitness professional knows, the majority of people are not likely to continue this important aspect of recovery.”
That experience became a turning point in Bertram’s career. As he helped his father, he noticed the lack of physical activity offered to other residents. “It was at that time that I began to develop a passion for working with frail elders,” he says. “I researched and studied whatever information I could find on the subject and went on to earn a specialty certificate.”
His commitment to serving the older-adult population became so strong that he and his wife sold their gym and moved to southern New Jersey, where a large number of assisted-living facilities were concentrated. Bertram was soon offered a position at one of them, developing and conducting fitness programs and assisting with restorative therapy.
Bertram’s initial foray into programming for the frail elderly was a program just for men, offered weekly. “The classes included stretching and range-of-motion [exercises], chair aerobics, and resistance training using a variety of equipment, including light bars and dumbbells, colorful balls, bands and tubes,” Bertram says. “I motivated [participants] by using visualization techniques such as ‘rowing the boat,’ ‘going fishing’ and ‘throwing a touchdown.’ The results were amazing. The men looked forward to each class. Those who were sullen started to smile. The quiet ones started socializing and reminiscing. They started to gain back some muscle strength and—just as important—confidence and self-esteem. They felt whole again! Word got out, and the women residents also wanted a resistance training program. It was the beginning of a new, exciting and rewarding chapter in my life.”
Bertram’s seated program includes a warm-up, stretching, range-of-motion exercises, cardio, strength training and coordination, followed by deep breathing for relaxation and a cool-down. He adds balance exercises for the standing program. “I use visualization techniques and colorful props, and I try to create a warm and inviting social environment,” Bertram says. “I keep it light and fun and find that humor and laughter are just as important [as the physical elements] for a well-rounded program.”
Bertram is continually motivated by his clients’ “spirit, spunk and enthusiasm for exercise.” “I am inspired knowing that I am helping people regain or maintain a level of independence, confidence and strength, [and that they are enjoying] better sleep and a better social life,” he says. “Despite their limitations and health issues, they are motivated and love to exercise.”
One of Bertram’s missions is to raise awareness among other fitness professionals about the specialized needs of frail elders. “This work is challenging, but the satisfaction and rewards are great,” he says. “These people include our parents and grandparents. They are war heroes, generations of hard-working people who raised children and sacrificed for their families. They deserve and desperately need attention from our industry.”