How Emily Johnson elevates resident experience through fitness

Apr 22, 2022
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Emily Johnson @ StrongerU Senior Fitness

Episode Summary

Terry meets with with Emily Johnson, the Founder and Creative Director of StrongerU Senior Fitness. Emily is on a mission to innovate and elevate senior fitness globally by empowering recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals, and senior-serving organizations, to deliver high-quality senior fitness classes. Prior to launching StrongerU Senior Fitness, Emily was a Regional Manager of Recreation supporting a team of 49 Directors of Recreation working in Independent and Assisted Living Retirement Communities.

Today she has trained over 600 senior fitness instructors across Canada, the US, Australia, and New Zealand primarily in senior living settings. Emily is an international trainer and conference presenter known for delivering dynamic sessions that give attendees “light-bulb moments” and tangible tools and resources to implement right away.


Terrence Wang (Welbi) (00:00)

You're listening to Care, the Resident Experience podcast from Welbi. Every month we chat with some of the best leaders in senior living to discover and share innovative strategies and perspectives that will impact communities for years to come. This week we're chatting with Emily Johnson, founder of StrongerU Senior Fitness. Emily, how are you doing?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (00:20)

I'm doing so great, Terry! How are you today?

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (00:23)

I am doing pretty well. We had a little bit of a mix up on a recording, so this may or may not be the second time recording this. But it is a pleasure, as always, to be chatting with you.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (00:36)


Terrence Wang (Welbi) (00:38)

Awesome. For the uninitiated out there who haven't heard of StrongerU, why don't you give everybody a little bit of a breakdown over what it is, how you got there, your past experience. I think that's a pretty good place to start.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (00:52)

Sure, yes. So my name is Emily. I am the founder of StrongerU Senior Fitness, and we're a fitness education company. I come from the senior living sector as well as chronic disease management in the community. And essentially I've worked throughout the ranks in senior living, from a life enrichment assistant, to a manager, to a regional manager overseeing a team of 49 across Canada. And it was really in my previous two experiences as a manager and as a regional where I really started to see this need for quality education, tools and resources for recreation professionals who were incredible but were searching Google, YouTube, all these crazy things, crumpled up pieces of paper, old manuals to try to offer really high quality fitness classes. And [they] we're spending a lot of time and not finding the resources they need all in one place. So essentially what we try to do at StrongerU is we make senior fitness easy by giving them the education, tools and resources they need to teach really high quality senior fitness classes.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (01:56)

See, I wish I had my pitch nailed down as well as you did there, Em. It is a really important component, talking about the fitness of it all, because we both work in recreation generally and I think recreation by itself is a beast to handle. But fitness specifically, I think, can be overlooked sometimes. Why do you think that is?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (02:17)

Yeah, really as recreation professionals, we're expected to be the jack of all trades and we can have a variety of education and experience backgrounds. And a lot of times people don't ask if you have prior certification, education, experience teaching fitness. They just say, you're the activity director, you're the life enrichment assistant, you're whoever, exercise is at 9:30, off you go. And they don't say, are you certified? Are you comfortable? It's just this expectation that they teach senior fitness. And a lot of times that results in, sometimes, low quality classes or the individual feeling uncomfortable and not wanting to hurt their residents, the seniors they serve, because they're not exactly sure what they should be doing. So it's super important for these individuals to get certified. But unfortunately, there wasn't really great resources attached to the education that was out there in the world. And that's ultimately why we created StrongerU, was to bridge that gap between knowledge and practice and give people everything they needed right away to teach really high quality fitness classes.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (03:24)

And that's an issue we see throughout a lot of the little pieces that make up recreation. Fitness is obviously a huge component, but we talk about it as something where people aren't trained. I know a lot of times they'll go through two or three day boot camps where a Rec Manager gets hired, or a Rec Attendant, and they'll go to one of these two or three day boot camps. I don't feel like that's enough, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (03:57)

Yes, absolutely. And this is where the senior fitness education system was a bit broken or didn't really serve our population as recreation professionals, specifically working in senior living. Because any time that we go to a two day weekend course, we're never an expert when we leave those scenarios, yet it's like, okay, you've gone to the two day course, you now have to be this expert. But really, it takes weeks and months and years and decades really, of continuing practice. And then a lot of times people go to, like I said, Google and YouTube to find out, okay, I've got some knowledge, but now what exactly should I be teaching? So with us at StrongerU, we really wanted to make it accessible and make sense for the world of senior living recreation professionals, where it is really hard to get away for that two day course. Because that means you have to take two days off of work, you have to be away from the residents, and it has to be in a major city a lot of times. So there could be a travel component involved to that, there's a time off work component, there's learning in a classroom setting – where StrongerU is self-paced so people can learn at their own pace around their crazy schedule. So there's a lot of brokenness in the current fitness education sector that we wanted to fix so that people could become fitness experts right away and access our content right away after they got that education.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (05:20)

A hundred percent. And I think that's one of those things just with professional development that's a little bit broken in general, and the effects are magnified when you're responsible for the well-being of residents. A boot camp is a boot camp, right? It's okay if an Ops or a high-level Rec Manager took one of these classes and now they have enough to plan and schedule the right classes. But it's not enough for the person actually leading everything. So I think there's two problems here. The communities either don't recognize that fitness, specifically modern fitness, is very crucial to seniors' lives or older adults' lives, but also that even when high-level management recognizes that that's a priority, they don't really know how to train the people. And I think we talked about the training. Why do you think it wasn't such a high level priority up at the top?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (06:20)

Yeah, I think there's a lot of misconceptions about aging and exercise. There's a huge misconception that we should be slowing down as we age. It's a bit of internalized ageism almost, and it comes from a well-meaning place. How many of us have said to Grandma, Grandpa, mom or dad: Don't worry about that mom, i'll take it over, i'll do that for you, you just sit, you relax. And it comes from a place of love and well meaning. But if Grandma just sits in that chair and mom just sits in that chair, mom eventually won't be able to get out of that chair because she's not maintaining her body. And so I think when it comes to senior fitness or exercise, again, this misconception of senior fitness being gentle exercise and stretching and easy, and it's like we don't want to hurt anyone. But really all the research tells us that we need to be doing a moderate to vigorous intensity exercise. Of course, we'll start wherever that person is in their fitness journey. That's quite slow and quite easy at first, but we need to progress it over time. And so I think from a corporate perspective, in terms of knowing the importance and even just knowing that we should be doing a little more than just stretching and gentle exercise. We need to train our staff so they know how to do a little more than just that. And to your point about the managers, they need to have at least some level of understanding to be able to then train or support their team and be able to maybe be the ones that are offering those classes.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (07:49)

And I think that is a subtle ageism where we treat senior fitness like it's somehow a completely different thing from normal fitness. Everybody knows if you're 35 and you're working out, it doesn't matter if you're running marathons or if you're just running your first 5K, you've got to challenge yourself. It doesn't matter if your challenge is somebody else's warm up, you still have to challenge yourself. And I don't think that changes as you age. There's somewhere along the line where you start hitting that retirement age where all of a sudden people flip the script on you. It's like now you don't challenge yourself. You just do the bare minimum because we're afraid and we need to put you into bubble wrap, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (08:27)

Yeah. It's so funny. Like you said, whether you're 35 or you're 65, a bicep is a bicep is a bicep. If you want to work your biceps so you can lift shopping bags or lift your favourite casserole dish, there's only a few ways to engage your biceps, and they're the exact same no matter what age you are. So if we want to maintain that strength for that functional living, then we have to do it a certain way. We can't just, I see some classes where it's like, let's pick the apples, let's go for a swim. And those are good range of motion movements but we don't have to dumb it down to these almost childlike movements because this is senior fitness. Now, we still need to work our biceps. We still need to work our entire muscular bodies. We need to work on our cardiovascular capacity and then make our heart and lungs pump. So, yeah, we definitely need to continue some sort of vigor. But vigorous might look very different for someone who's not exercised in 30 years. It might look very slow, but their heart is still pumping. We have StrongerU instructors who are 65+ and they are the ones teaching the classes, and so vigorous to them looks a lot different than vigorous to someone who's been deconditioned.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (09:45)

A hundred percent. And I think that's one of the big things. It's really easy to understand, okay, you need to challenge people. But knowing how to challenge at different levels while also keeping safety in mind. Because safety is a thing at any age group. You push a 20 year old through too much and they're going to tear something, just the same way. So that doesn't change either. And it's really having the fitness knowledge and the fitness expertise to be able to work across every single range.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (10:16)

Yep, exactly. And that's what we teach our StrongerU instructors. We give them the content, but it's not teach it exactly this way. You're a person. We're going to teach you how to look at your class and see that, oh, they look bored. Time to up the pace. Get the slow version of the move and go right into the fast version. Or, okay, they look like they're really struggling. Let's slow it down. Let's stick with this move a little bit longer. So that's something else with our program is it's completely customizable to the seniors that they're working with so that their seniors get the best workout that they want.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (10:51)

And I think that's a sign of any great Rec program, right? Where it's not something that's predefined for somebody, something that's one size fits all, but something that's really personalized to the specific needs. And in the fitness case, it's very specific because your own body can only do certain things. And especially because no community has a ton of control before residents come into their system. Like you said, who knows, somebody could have been sitting in a chair for 30 years. And fitting that in along with the person who's been running half marathons since they were 35 and they just happened to want to live in a community for the first time – having to balance those two and having the different programming to support both, that itself is a challenge, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (11:35)

Oh yes, absolutely. And so it needs to be completely customizable. And that's why our program has a seated component. It has a standing component so they can pick the one that's right. And then within those two components, same thing – they can increase or decrease the intensity to meet those people. Customization and individualization is so important to the success of any program, whether it's fitness or any other recreation program.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (11:57)

A hundred percent. And speaking about that kind of individualized, person-centred approach – I think person-centred is the big word that the whole industry is shifting towards. What are some things, not just with fitness programs, with every program, that instructors and coordinators and managers should be looking at more and more.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (12:18)

Yeah, exactly. So my background is not only just the fitness side of it, but the recreation side and all of the programming aspects. And the most successful recreation, life enrichment, activity directors, whatever you have your title, the most successful ones were the ones who really knew their residence and planned their calendars and made all of their programming fit exactly for who is living in their community, who is coming to their programs. And so whether that's fitness or guest speakers or entertainment or whatever it might be, customizing and being super person-centred is totally key to success in any great recreation program.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (13:00)

And I think you brought up a couple of good strategies there already. But I know it can be daunting. I've spoken to communities who realize it's a problem. They realize, oh no, we've been doing a lot of like–we've just been running the same things back every single month. We want to change this, but it's a huge daunting task to tell somebody: now, we're going to throw out this calendar that you've been using for ten years, and we're going to come up with a new one. It's going to be person-centred, it's going to be individual. That is a huge task to handle, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (13:29)

Yeah, exactly. And I'll give a little shout out to Welbi here, because this is like where Welbi is totally the most essential tool ever – where you can use it to gather those assessments, those personalizations, everything you need to know about your residents. Because that's key. If you don't have this information on who your residents are, then that's game over right there. And so with Welbi, it's all there. And then you're able to then use that information to then personalize that calendar and send out those personalized invites. So it can be really daunting to have just a bunch of paper around. But when you have a solution like Welbi, it just makes it so easy to have everything in one place and actually accessible.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (14:10)

I think Welbi helps – and I think platforms like Welbi, although I don't think they do them as well, it does help. But it is also a mindset change to kind of shift over and to understand, hey, the way that we've been doing it, it just doesn't work like that. We need to understand each resident. I think the more that senior living has focused on recreation, the bigger and bigger and bigger that has become. And we see it all the time. It's like a pattern all around the industry. It used to be–I remember when I was much younger, when I was a kid, you would think about communities as this thing–it's like, oh, that's the nursing home you send grandpa to when you can't walk anymore. There's no other reason for people to want to go there. But that's completely changed now.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (14:58)

Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, it was the home. It was the nursing home. It was places that no one wanted to go to and maybe rightfully so decades ago. But we've had this big shift where the quality of life in a retirement community or even long-term care is just such an opportunity to almost regain things that you may have lost over the years. I think about the pandemic where community centres were shut down, people had to stay in their homes. And I feel like the people who were actually hit the hardest were people, especially older adults, living at home, not being able to see their families, not being able to go to the community centre. Whereas when we look at retirement living or senior living in general, except for when of course they had their own shutdowns, but they could still be around people, they could still go down to their fitness programming because the centre wasn't closed. And so what we see is sometimes people move into retirement living and they almost get a new lease on life because now they have fitness programs every day of the week. They get to be intellectually challenged and go to their guest speaker in the afternoon, have fun, and go to the entertainment in the evening, be with friends. So I definitely think there is a shift and it's going to continue to shift where senior living is not seen as something where you just go to die because you have no other choice. But it's this place where you go to thrive and get a new lease on life

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (16:21)

A hundred percent. And I think it's a very logical shift of what happens when people stop working. Because I think there's that awkward transition in your life as soon as you stop work, where all of a sudden you realize that your social circle for the last 40/50 years has exclusively been work. And now all of a sudden you don't have that. You don't have a social circle. You don't have a purpose to be doing things. And that's one of the things that I think the community can bring a lot of value to, even if you're able to live at home, even if your family is there supporting you. The same way how I think if you're 30, you wouldn't want to live at home by yourself with just your family. I don't think you would want to do that sometimes if you're 70 either. And I think that's one of those pieces with the goal setting. I know one of the challenges we have is that as Rec professionals working with Rec professionals, we tell people, oh, you have to set goals. And then they're like, what do you mean we have to set goals? Like, I'm retired, I'm done with goals, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (17:23)

Yeah, absolutely. I think it's interesting we have these assessment forms. And on some of these assessment forms, there's this goal setting piece. And like you said, when you say to one of your residents, what are your goals? And like you said, they're like, I don't set goals anymore? And this is where I am a big advocate, for just kind of losing the paper sometimes and knowing what's on the paper and knowing what you're trying to find out, but just having a very real conversation with your new residents and just getting to know them like you would any other friend. Starting with, hey, what do you like to do in your spare time? Or, oh, where did you live before this? Or who is special to you? And then just letting the conversation flow organically from there. And when you start to find out what's important to people or what they miss doing or they used to do, that's when you can sort of extrapolate those goals from the conversation. Something I remember hearing before when I was doing an intake with a resident is that she used to love to go to lunch with her friends. But she stopped going to lunch because she had her walker and she was embarrassed and she was actually really concerned about getting up off the toilet if she had to go to the restaurant and would have to use the washroom. And so immediately I was like, okay, I can fix this with exercise. That's where my mind went. If we work on your sit-to-stands and your lower body strength and we help you feel stronger, you can go to lunch with your girlfriends and not be worried about the walker because you're going to be standing up nice and tall and you can use the washroom and feel comfortable that you're not going to get into an awkward situation there. And so it's really up to the recreation professional to get to know that person, get to know what's important to them, then figure out what the goals are from there. And then sort of almost sneakily help them get there, because sometimes people don't want to admit they're having a problem or that something's not going right or they can't do something anymore. And so that's where recreation comes in, to sort of save the day without letting people know really, they're saving the day.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (19:30)

In that way, sometimes I feel like it's cheesy when we rename terms, but that's where I think–I know the U.S. has changed from largely calling it "recreation" to "life enrichment". And that is something I really do believe in because it's not just people doing things for fun. Because recreation is a huge part of your life. You're not living a full life day to day–if you're not enjoying recreation, you're not relaxing that way. Relaxing doesn't mean lying in bed all day. It means doing the things you want to do. And for that woman specifically, that was going to lunch. And depending on who it is, it's really important to get to know people like that.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (20:11)

Yeah. And I think the naming shift, even a whole culture shift in senior living where it was like, oh, the activity professional, that's just the person who plays bingo. And they're not really an important person on the management team. They're kind of just this person in the building who's playing games and doing whatever. And now the most successful senior living organizations, in my opinion, put a big focus on their life enrichment, on their recreation, because really that is what's going to set them apart moving forward. That's what people are looking for, because that's what makes it not be that nursing home or that home that people don't want to go to. That's where it makes it a vibrant community that you want to live in. I tell my husband all these stories of all the fun things I used to do when I was traveling around to all the retirement communities and how beautiful the buildings were. And so his perspective of senior living is like, he can't wait until we're old enough to move in, because it's such a positive experience. So I feel like the more we focus on the life enrichment aspect, on the high quality programming perspective, the more people are going to have that positive look at senior living versus more of that care and nursing side, which is very important as a needed part of the business. But when we focus on just that, that's when we still get stuck in those old ways of the nursing home that you don't want to go.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (21:32)

Exactly. Because at the core of it, you got to satisfy the needs of every single resident. But what makes life worth living a lot of the time, is all the wants and all your preferences and all your hobbies and all your interests, and those are minor things that can be ignored. Because you ignore them for long enough and that's what eventually just kind of ruins the whole experience for you, right?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (21:53)

Yep, exactly. It's really not a life worth living, right? Recreation is really meant to make life and to bring back the joy and things. And when you are retired and you don't have to work or raise a family anymore, that's when it's time to enjoy yourself, take on new hobbies, start new things, take on projects, do things you're passionate about. And really, that's what life enrichment is all about, is helping people to either rediscover or discover brand new, all of these things that you can get involved with.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (22:18)

I think that would be a wonderful way to end things. But before we end off, I always like to introduce a little piece that's a little bit more actionable. Because it's not always possible for somebody to just drop everything, whether it's recreation software or whether it's more programming on the fitness side. But it's important. So what's an easy first step they can do to kind of dip their toes into it, get a sense of it and evaluate so that they can invest more over time.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (22:46)

Yeah, definitely. We would love everyone out there who is listening, obviously, to become a StrongerU senior fitness instructor. But in the meantime, I would say first step, just take a critical look at your fitness programming. I've used the words gentle exercise and stretching today. If you're like, yeah, that kind of sounds like our program, that's probably a first sort of flag or warning sign that we could be doing a little bit better. And then once you've identified that, it's identifying, okay, do we need to train our staff? Do we need to get them resources? They're not going to Google or into YouTube. What is that? And then in terms of something they could do tomorrow? I always say, walking programs. Starting a walking program is super free and simple for anyone to do. And it's a really great way to start getting those heart and lungs pumping and really start making an impact on your residents' health.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (23:38)

So if you were going to start a walking club today, if you were running the recreation, what would be your first step?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (23:46)

Yeah, either having a staff run it or it's a great opportunity to have a resident run it as well. Because walking programs you can really do any single day of the week. And giving it as a resident responsibility to one of those really go-getter active residents, maybe a younger resident who just loves fitness, can be a really great source of purpose for them as well. So one of those two options. And you can start really small. There's some really great research around there. One of my favourite studies, actually, looks at brain health. And they start with having people walk for three times a week, ten minutes per day. And they increase that by five minutes for seven weeks. And then for the rest of the year, they stay at 40 minutes per day three times a week. So that's kind of a good way to start. If you have maybe a deconditioned group, just start with ten minutes and add another five minutes the next week, another five minutes until you get to 30/40 minutes a week or per session, and then you'll see the benefits that your residents are going to reap from something as simple as a walking program.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (24:46)

And once you've seen the success with that walking program and you know it's time to invest in more fitness, how should they contact StrongerU?

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (24:55)

Yeah, thank you! So go to the strongeruseniorfitness.com website. That's "stronger", "the letter u", "seniorfitness.com" and you can check out all about our instructor training and our ongoing class content. So after you got that walking program in place you can then take it up a next level and you can add in those seated or standing cardio programs. You can add in that muscular strength thing that we talked about earlier, the balance programming. We're there to give you all the resources.

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (25:23)

And I'm sure people are going to be excited about that. I'll have everything linked to the best of my ability, at least to have the website in there so that you have an easy place to go to and you're not re-listening through the last 20 seconds trying to figure out how to spell it. But as always, thank you so much for coming to the show and sharing everything you know about fitness. It is a huge, huge deal to involve it more in senior living.

Emily Johnson (StrongerU Senior Fitness) (25:49)

Perfect. Thanks so much, Terry!

Terrence Wang (Welbi) (25:51)

Awesome, talk soon!

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