Envoy of Williamsburg Energizes Residents with Exercise Classes Featuring Current Dance Hits

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Residents at Envoy of Williamsburg participate in a special exercise class for people with limited mobility. (Courtesy Envoy of Williamsburg)
Residents at Envoy of Williamsburg participate in a special exercise class for people with limited mobility. (Courtesy Envoy of Williamsburg)

Six months ago a visitor to Envoy of Williamsburg’s dance fitness class for residents in wheelchairs might have seen residents half-heartedly shuffling around to oldies staples, such as hits from Diana Ross or The Temptations.

Today those same residents are dancing to a different tune – recent dance hit “Wobble” from rapper V.I.C., to be specific.

Consulate Health Care’s James City County-based assisted living facility began offering the “Sit and Be Fit” dance class for residents with limited mobility about a year ago.

The program’s recent reboot came about two months ago when instructors realized the participants were unenthused about the class playlist, which was composed largely of standards from the 1950s.

Employees like Shannon Smith-Markham, Envoy’s Director of Therapeutic Recreation, assumed when she and her team first launched the Sit and Be Fit program that the participants, most of whom are elderly, would most enjoy exercising to the songs of their youth.

“I’ve done this for 10 years and I never thought the more modern music is something the residents would really enjoy,” Smith-Markham said.

The decision came to change up the playlist when Smith-Markham and the instructors noticed some of the residents seemed to be stalling or even digressing in their physical function despite regular participation in the program.

The team decided some new music might give new life to a class that was quickly growing stale, but they did not anticipate how enthusiastically the participants would take to the change.

“It’s just really and truly taken off,” Smith-Markham said. “It’s really surprised me.”

The new playlist includes classic dance tunes like the “Cha-Cha Slide” and “Cupid Shuffle,” along with more recent dance phenomenons like the Whip and the Nae Nae.

“It’s funny because I’m like, y’all are dancing to songs I’ve never even heard before,” Smith-Markham said with a laugh. “They’re more modern than me.”

The re-energized playlist has led to a resurgence of interest in the class, which takes place daily for 30 to 45 minutes. Smith-Markham estimates a typical weekday class now attracts 25 participants on average – a marked increase over attendance before the music change.

“It makes you feel good when your participation [numbers are] as good as bingo,” Smith-Markham said.

As for why the class is a surprise hit, the instructors believe it has a lot to do with the youthful energy and diverse movements the new music has brought about.

Because almost all of the participants are in wheelchairs and have limited mobility in various ways, it is up to each individual student to modify the dance moves in a way that helps them build strength while remaining comfortable and confident.

“There’s no criticism like there would be if you went to a gym. Everyone’s accepting of whatever skill level you’re at,” Smith-Markham said. “As long as you’re having fun, that’s what matters.”

Fun is the main goal, but Smith-Markham also believes participating in this type of class makes a real difference to residents in terms of helping them maintain their fitness levels and stay as mobile as possible.

Some residents also have expressed they have experienced mental benefits because of the shift in music, Smith-Markham said.

“The residents really seem to enjoy that we aren’t that typical old person nursing home,” she said. “When you come into this kind of setting, you’re expecting to hear 40s and 50s kinds of music. You’re not expecting to hear the Wobble going off.”

It is the residents themselves who are the biggest advocates for the updated program. Smith-Markham likes to point to one woman in particular, a regular Sit and Be Fit attendee who, with regular physical therapy and participation in the program, recently went from being entirely wheelchair-bound to being able to stand and even walk on her own.

“[This resident] says that if it wasn’t for the Sit and Be Fit program, she wouldn’t be where she is now,” Smith-Markham said. “She tells all the new residents to come on down.”