It looks like any other fitness class, with all the huffing, puffing, stretching, grunting and repetitive movement you’d expect.
What makes this class different is Anita Stephens, its enthusiastic leader, offering her mostly age-65-plus students a constant stream of encouragement (“Nice job!”), exhortations (“You got one more in you? Of course you do. You’re strong!”) and eagle-eyed individual attention (“Some of you are not breathing. I can see it in your faces. You’ve got to breathe in!”).
It’s an exercise class with heart, thanks to the familial vibe Stephens creates. That ability, along with Stephens’ attention to her routines and her willingness to take an individual tack even in a group setting, helps to explain why Stephens recently was named a national finalist for the SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year award.
In honoring her, SilverSneakers — a nationwide health and fitness program for adults 65 and older — also cited Stephens’ community service in having served as foster parent to 43 children over the course of a decade.
“She is a special individual,” says Brianna Barber, Durango Hills YMCA executive director. “I think one big difference in somebody such as Anita is, she has this level of compassion you don’t always see with (group instructors).”
Stephens will give presents to students and stay after class to answer questions, Barber says. “She cares. She’s got a huge heart.”
Going the extra mile
Leigh Acosta, Durango Hills YMCA health and wellness director, adds that “what sets her apart is she’s continually researching, constantly doing more and more outside of the class to see what she can do with our members.”
For Stephens, caring for foster kids and helping senior citizens remain active and healthy are just two sides of the same coin.
As a foster parent, “at the end of the day, it was me being a voice” for children, she says. For seniors, it’s serving “not necessarily as a voice per se for them, but somebody they can talk to. I hope they know I’m a friend, and I know some of them look at me that way, as somebody they can trust.”
Stephens, 51, was born and raised in Las Vegas. “From a very young age, I always loved dance,” she says. She was on Eldorado High School’s dance team, was a song leader, and danced and sang in a group called “Sounds of the Sun.”
Stephens and her husband, Wesley, knew each other growing up, and married after reconnecting two years after graduation. Eventually, they began a family, and that “changed our priorities,” she says. “That’s when we became foster parents.”
A decade of fostering
It began with a friend’s suggestion that Stephens might want to look into fostering. After 10 years of fostering children, the couple adopted two of their fosters , who joined their own four children in creating what one of Stephens’ sons called “organized chaos. We just learned how to manage it all.”
Then Stephens’ interests led her in a new, but not wholly unrelated, direction.
“For about 20 years I raised children and took care of them and worked in the foster care community here,” Stephens says. “That started to shift about four years ago. I decided to do something for myself after taking care of everybody else. I decided I wanted to get back into fitness and dance.”
She also thought she’d like to work with seniors. Because of her father-in-law’s challenges with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease, she was comfortable working with seniors facing medical challenges such as heart disease, stroke or dementia.
“So I started to work toward my personal training certification and my senior fitness certificate. I love to learn, so I loved taking the classes and learning . It just kind of evolved into seeing how I can help that (senior) population. I just feel it’s your job as a member of society to pay it forward.”
In her SilverSneakers classes, Stephens offers students cardiovascular, strength, flexibility and balance activities aimed at promoting general fitness. She also works with students who are facing individual health challenges, teaching them activities and exercises that might help them, say, recover from a stroke, cardiac event or joint replacement surgery.
“We have people in wheelchairs who do (exercises) just from their wheelchair,” Stephens says. “We work with it all.”
Small goals still important
Sometimes, students simply want to accomplish individual health goals to improve their daily lives. One student recently told Stephens that, for the first time, she was able to navigate an airport without using a wheelchair.
“So whatever their goal is, whether it’s walking across the airport or being able to play with their grandchildren, or they want to be able to play pickleball, whatever it is, we can help them achieve those things.”
Too often, society’s attitude toward seniors is “pushing them to the side: OK, you’re old, you’re retired and we don’t need to worry about you anymore,” Stephens says. “But we do, and we want to be able to help people in those golden years. They’re not very golden if we can’t even get off of the couch. So we focus on what we call activities of daily living.”
Stephens’ classes also offer an important sense of community. A recent class ended with birthday wishes for one member, along with hugs and goodbyes.
“It’s about creating this kind of family,” Stephens says. “When these people come together, they really do become family.”