Merlene Davis: Sitting still is not an option for this 94-year-old

Lucille M. Clay, 94, exercises once a week in a class designed for people who are age 50 or older.
Lucille M. Clay, 94, exercises once a week in a class designed for people who are age 50 or older.

Growing up, Lucille M. Clay of Lexington said she was a "tomboy."

I never really liked that term, which was applied to me as well. I couldn't understand why I couldn't simply be a girl who liked to be physically active. Society has finally caught up with Clay and me. Now we are simply known as old people who exercise.

"I've always exercised," said Clay, 94. "In my later years — maybe my 50s — I played some tennis. When I was younger, I used to live in Charlotte Court, near (Douglass) Park. I had some old beat-up golf clubs and I played golf. Anything active, I did it."

Now a nonagenarian, Clay exercises at the Black & Williams Neighborhood Community Center once a week in a class designed for those 50 years of age or older and those who need help with flexibility.

Mark Johnson, health equity team leader for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, teaches that senior class, a spinoff of a class he started two years ago at William Wells Brown Community Center.

"We started out with about seven people then," Johnson said, adding that classes are now held at Black & Williams, William Wells Brown and the multi-purpose building behind the House of God at 866 Georgetown Street.

Similar range of motion and aerobic classes are available at the Senior Citizens Center, 1530 Nicholasville Road, three days a week. Yoga and tai chi classes are also free to seniors there.

Johnson said he saw a need for the classes in neighborhood centers as well and started the one at William Wells Brown. That class is now known as Solid Gold, and participants have their own matching T-shirts. I joined that class in the spring, when my joints reminded me that Zumba can look better than it feels for certain folks.

"We start out in chairs, doing range of motion exercises," said Johnson, who has been trained to teach aerobics since 1980. "We really concentrate on folks with arthritis. You have to use it before you lose it."

Although the pace is slower, participants stretch arm, leg and finger muscles before marching in place while still seated and then standing for low-impact movements.

If able, participants can run or walk briskly for a cardio workout before starting strength training with elastic bands. All the while, old-school music is played, perhaps to recreate memories of our youth and make us move like youngsters again.

"Every once in a while we do the electric slide and the cupid shuffle. We have to keep folks moving for their independence and mobility," Johnson said. "It will help them be around a lot longer."

Maybe not as long as Clay, though. She said she has lived longer than anyone else in her family. Every weekday she goes to the senior program at the center, where she plays cards and dominoes while visiting friends.

"There is another part there where people work with their hands, with craft activities," she said. "I never was good at that."

But when Black & Williams asked Johnson to bring his exercises there, Clay thought she'd give it a try. The gentle workouts have boosted her energy, she said.

"I don't feel tired. I feel good. It is simple," she said. "Mostly sitting down. I can't walk as well as I used to."

Although she has given up a lot in the past year, such as driving and the idea her house has to be spotless, she isn't ready to give up on exercises.

"I recommend it," she said. "I don't think you ought to sit down and do nothing just because you are retired."

The word must be spreading because Johnson said he is getting requests from other neighborhood centers to start a senior exercise program at their site. He'll do as many as he can, he said, along with the low-impact classes he teachers, but to fulfill all the requests more instructors are needed.

"The need is great and we have to keep folk our age and older as active as possible," Johnson said.