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Oak Crest fitness program boosts health, prepares students, joins two generations

July 15, 2019

During DiAnne Schmitt’s many decades living in DeKalb, she has savored the “communiversity” culture afforded by living in a college town.

Now that her address is an apartment in the Oak Crest Retirement Center, she continues to consume NIU’s culture of arts and Division I athletics – along with the personal fitness training offered to her by students in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE).

Schmitt is among between 80 and 90 residents of Oak Crest who regularly participate in an NIU-run exercise program that has been offered on-site since 1988 and, in 2003, won the Excellence in Programming Award from the Council on Aging and Adult Development of the American Association for Active Lifestyles and Fitness.

“I come here after I have done physical therapy, which we have here at Oak Crest as well,” Schmitt says.

“My PT listed the types of things I needed to do with balance and strength so that they would have an idea of the types of limitations I have, and so they would use the types of exercise I was used to,” she adds. “As I gained a little strength, they would vary it.”

Her appreciation of the services has grown in the two years she has come to the Fitness Center.

“This is a well-directed program. Every one of the students has taken the job of working with me seriously,” Schmitt says. “It’s important for me, and maybe for them, that they get feedback from older persons – this is not athletic training – and I find that they’re good at listening to me about what I need. This tests their patience. This tests their knowledge. This tests their adaptation.”

David Benner
David Benner

Currently overseen by David Benner, a KNPE instructor, the program provides students with unique, hands-on experiences that will make them more skilled and marketable after graduation.

Oak Crest funds a graduate assistantship and provides the facility while KNPE handles program administration, equipment and supervision of the students.

Between 45 and 60 students typically enroll in KNPE 493 each semester. Most are Kinesiology majors whose participation is required. About one-quarter of the rest are studying Athletic Training, Benner says, while others are Gerontology minors.

“Right at the beginning of the semester – during the first two weeks – we take them through the orientation phases. We introduce the important things they need to know about adults with special conditions or limited abilities,” he says. “We then go through hundreds of exercises that they could do with each client.”

When the students eventually meet their clients, they begin to assess which of those exercises have the potential to produce peak outcomes.

“Our students go through a process where they learn what the client’s goals are, whether it’s to improve on balance or strength, or to help with fall prevention, or to increase range of shoulder motion or to improve finger dexterity,” he says. “They then figure out what exercises are appropriate based on client goals, and we then go through to make sure they’re touching on everything.”

As the days and weeks turn into weeks and months, he adds, the workouts might change.

“We make sure they’re progressing through the semester,” Benner says. “Our students make it easy or basic at the start, to show the residents that they can accomplish it, before adding to it with more weight or more reps.”

Early one spring morning, as the Fitness Center hummed with activity and conversation, Oak Crest residents were busy throwing and catching balls, sitting down and standing up, pulling ropes, walking through parallel bars and on uneven surfaces, lifting weighted ankles and more.

Brinley Milbrath, an NIU Huskie volleyball player from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was one of the young trainers leading the exercises.

“I absolutely love it here,” says Milbrath, a Kinesiology major. “It teaches you to modify the workouts for an older population. You listen to your clients, and you help them get better.”

Fellow Kinesiology major Rich Jasch, who hopes to work in strength and conditioning for a collegiate athletics program, calls his time at Oak Crest “definitely relatable” to that career.

“Just in developing patience, and in getting the experience of working with a different population, a lot of this is transferrable,” Jasch says. “I’m learning and doing different things than what I would do in strength and conditioning.”

Samantha Hagland, who served this spring as a graduate assistant in the Oak Crest Fitness Center, sees mutual benefits to the program.

“Coming here gives our students a great clinical experience in a real setting and with older adults. The fact that they get this in their curriculum – as part of their major – is huge and will set them apart,” says Hagland, a master’s student in Exercise Physiology.

“For the residents, they don’t have to leave Oak Crest. They don’t have to pay for this,” she adds. “They appreciate talking to the young students and see them as good company.”

Hagland took KNPE 493 as an NIU undergraduate.

“It was very valuable,” she says. “It taught me a lot of patience, and opened up a lot of career options to me. I never considered with this geriatric population before. It’s always nice to see how much they appreciate us being here, and helping this population gives you quite a sense of fulfillment.”

Josh Walinski, who worked alongside Hagland as a G.A. during the spring, and is also pursuing the same master’s degree, agrees.

“We’re helping the residents to do things they might not have the ability to do, like grabbing a milk jug from the top shelf or picking up their grandkids without back pain,” Walinski says. “You might not think you’re making a big difference when you do the exercises, but the development comes.”

Development also comes for the students, Benner says, and in multiple ways.

“All of them are always nervous and a little hesitant at the start. Some are afraid because they’ve never worked with older adults, and there’s this stigma that they’re not capable of doing these things. The students say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to be extra careful. I don’t want to break their hip. I don’t want to cause more harm than good,’ ” Benner says.

“But as they ease in, they start to realize, ‘I’m not going to cause harm. I’m going to keep my exercise regimen safe, but I’m going to challenge them,’ ” he adds. “They gain a comfort level, and it makes them much more confident.”

That confidence eventually adorns résumés.

“YMCAs, retirement homes, nursing homes – all of these places are looking for personal trainers or fitness leaders to take on older adults and do the very things we are teaching,” Benner says.

“Our graduates can say, ‘I’ve already done this during my college experience.’ They know exactly what it’s like working with this population.”

Sometimes, of course, the benefits go beyond health and wellness or academic preparation. Just ask Schmitt.

“It’s an excellent thing for us as older persons to have this influx of youthful energy here,” she says. “It brightens our day.”