Fitness business fights memory loss with movement

Personal experience with the effects of Alzheimer's on people they are close to prompted Elisa Dely and Rob Kennedy to open a fitness business in April in Kalamazoo that helps people with the memory-robbing disease.

There is a growing body of research which shows that moderate exercise, or exercise in general, improves the cognitive ability of people with memory issues and dementia.

"When someone has Alzheimer's and dementia their balance and movement in general is challenged," Dely says. "Exercise maintains their physical condition and gives them confidence in movement and physical ability they may not normally have."

Four or five years ago Dely’s godmother, Janet Stillwell, began exhibiting signs of memory loss. Eventually Stillwell, retired Associate Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Western Michigan University, moved into Bickford Cottage, an assisted living facility, and Dely became her caregiver.

"She has always worked very hard in her profession but she never really was active," Dely says of Stillwell. "My goal with her was to keep her moving."

Kennedy now trains Stillwell because he is able to maintain the professional distance Dely cannot. As Dely dealt with her godmother’s declining health issues, Kennedy was coming to terms with his father’s Alzheimer's diagnosis.

"It started to bring it up to a more personal level for me and I knew my father would want to keep himself strong and independent for as long as possible," Kennedy says. "I thought it made sense to bring fitness services to people rather than having them have to seek out a facility."

This service delivery approach offered through Genesis Fitness and Wellness LLC appealed to Suzanne Gernaat, a retired teacher and Kalamazoo resident who spent 15 years caring for her mother, father and husband who were all diagnosed with  Alzheimer's.

"I try to keep active and I do a lot of walking, but it’s hard in the wintertime because of the ice and I have balance issues," Gernaat says. "I told Elisa I was looking for balance exercises and strength training."

After working with Dely, friends and relatives told Gernaat that she should teach classes about ways to cope with the disease. Two years later she now teaches at eight locations, including Friendship Village.

"In my classes I talk a lot of about physical exercise and the importance of it. There’s a real strong connection there," Gernaat says. "I have a lot of people who can’t physically do things, but just walking for 15 minutes a day can make a big difference."

A neuroscientist at the University of Illinois, Art Kramer, conducted a study that shows the benefits of exercise such as walking, jogging or swimming on brain function.

In Kramer's study, participants had brain scans before and after they started a program of moderate aerobic exercise--just 45 minutes, three days a week; mostly walking. After a year, Kramer found the volume of their brains actually increased. And that translated into a better memory. Kramer points to earlier research that found significant changes in the brains of rodents when they exercised.

"It increases the number of new neurons, the computational factories in the brain; it increases the effectiveness of connections between different brain regions; and also increases the blood supply to various regions of the brain," Kramer says.

Science aside, Gernaat says she simply knows how much better she feels after exercising. Having that extra encouragement and support from Dely, who works with her every other week, makes a big difference.

"I need to have someone pushing and motivating me," Gernaat says. "She comes right to your house and the program is individualized. This made sense rather than joining a gym because it’s individualized and specific to my needs."

The people Dely and Kennedy work with, especially those with memory loss issues, tend to function better in their own surroundings.

"It becomes every confusing and hard between thinking that ‘I have to take a step up’ and making your body do that," Dely says. "A lot of these people can probably stand and walk and take steps, but their cognitive ability won’t allow it."

To make the workout less complicated Dely and Kennedy incorporate items their clients are already using and may have them practice their skills with walking with a walker or using a cane properly, or bending over and touching their toes with some assistance.

"This is stuff they can’t do on their own because they would be falling down," Dely says. "We make it challenging enough so they can make progress, but we’re kind of entertainers as well.

"We can’t make it all better, but it helps with cognitive function and it helps keep the memory issues at bay slightly."

Dely and Kennedy have a combined total of more than 30 years in the fitness field. Both of them are personal trainers at West Hills Athletic Club. Kennedy has trained Dely for numerous bodybuilding championships since they began working together at West Hills.

For Kennedy the idea of focusing on the elderly population began to make a lot of sense when he worked as the fitness director at The Fountains at Bronson Place 16 years ago. He was brought in to expand that facility’s fitness offerings and make their fitness facility a marketing tool. What he discovered during that time was a fairly rapid improvement in the residents ability to function.

"Not only did they see the physical benefits, but they were so proud and attributed every success they had to the exercise they were doing," Kennedy says. "Ultimately I ended up leaving, but I continued to work with a wide range of people and working with that population was always in the back of my mind. I always recognized the need for that specific population and recognized that they don’t seek out this sort of help."

When Kennedy was formulating his vision for a wellness business he wanted it to be different enough than what he was doing at West Hills to avoid any conflict of interest. He says that’s why the initial target market was seniors.

"I already had clients in an array of ages," he says. "Once Elisa got involved and we really started to push forward with the business and the idea we found out very quickly that there’s a much greater need out there of all ages. Our scope widened, but we have special place in our hearts and a niche with seniors."

The business partners now have more than 15 clients between them. They range in age from 11 years old to 95 years old. Kennedy says he is seeing more and more people who are avoiding the "gym" atmosphere for a variety of reasons. He says the important thing is that they find a way to exercise that fits with their needs and their lifestyle.

Jane Parikh is a freelance writer with more than 20 years experience. A Kalamazoo native, she is now based in Battle Creek.

Photos by Erik Holladay.