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Women In Wellness: Emily Johnson of StrongerU Senior Fitness on the Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

Look past the wrinkles: How would you feel if people looked at you and assumed you needed help, couldn’t hear, or had nothing to contribute? You would feel terrible, likely depressed, unseen. Too often assumptions are made based off appearance and age. We are all aging, so we must start now to rid ourselves of often unintended ageist views. I have always looked past the wrinkles and gray hair to the person inside. I know this is the reason why I have been able to have the career I have had and create StrongerU.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Johnson.

Emily is the Founder and Creative Director of StrongerU Senior Fitness. The first senior fitness certification globally to empower recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals and senior-serving organizations such as retirement communities and senior centers to deliver quality, safe, effective, and engaging fitness experiences through monthly pre-choreographed class content. She is on a mission to help seniors stay physically strong, intellectually sharp, and socially connected.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

When I was in university, I wanted to be a dentist. My mom is a dental assistant and I always loved spending time in the office and filing charts as a child. I also grew up dancing. I was always curious about the body, so when it was time to choose my undergraduate path, I decided to complete my degree in Kinesiology, but take all the required biology and chemistry classes to still pursue dentistry. One day a Cardiac Rehab group came into my class to share a volunteer opportunity. I have no idea what possessed me in that moment, but I thought, “That sounds like a great opportunity!”. This coming from the brain of a person who had no intention of working with older adults after graduation. My first shift I immediately fell in love with working with older adults. I was assigned to walk the track with a woman and I remember being in awe of our conversation, her knowledge, and life. I didn’t have much interaction with seniors up until that point except for my grandparents. I volunteered and later worked for that Cardiac Rehab and Chronic Disease Management Program for 4 years. The same year I graduated the funding for my position was cut. That’s when my husband found Senior Living. He was helping me look for jobs and said, “Hey, look at this! You would be great at this!”. I was hired as a Wellness and Vitality Assistant in Calgary, Alberta. I packed up my life in Ontario and we moved across the country. I had an incredible mentor in this role. After a year, I became a Life Enrichment Manager and this is when I started to realize the problems in senior fitness especially within retirement communities.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

I sat in on the fitness classes of the two assistants I inherited in my new role as Life Enrichment Manager and I was shocked. They had no senior specific fitness training. The workouts were boring, ineffective, and some of the exercises were even unsafe. I began the re-education process with them and senior leadership started to take notice of what I was doing. They sent me to train and onboard new Life Enrichment Managers and I continued to be shocked by the quality of the fitness programs being offered. I then had the idea to create a fitness program that would be distributed throughout the organization and make that organization the premier place for older adults to thrive. Unfortunately, that company didn’t see the potential, but another opportunity arose to make my vision a reality and do it on a larger scale. I became the Regional Manager of Recreation supporting 49 Directors of Recreation across Canada and again- I was shocked. Out of 49, there were only about 5 who had effective and engaging fitness offerings. I thought, “Geez, this is a problem of epidemic proportions!”. We have a captive audience (the residents) who want to stay fit, they are coming to the classes daily, but the instructors don’t know what to teach to help them. Some had taken a senior fitness course, some hadn’t, but almost all were struggling with ‘what’ to teach. Years went on and the workload of that position didn’t allow me to create the program I had first dreamed of creating, so I started working on StrongerU every evening and weekend. Up until this point I had unintentionally been researching and designing StrongerU Senior Fitness for a decade without knowing it and now it was time to package it in a way that could benefit recreation, wellness, and fitness professionals globally. Shortly after creating StrongerU, I was excited to be selected as a Finalist for the AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge. Then I was selected as a finalist for the Global Innovation Showcase for Aging2.0. I just wanted to solve a problem for my staff and I was blown away by how many others wanted and needed the solution I created. As instructors started to take the online course, I was floored by their positive feedback. A year later the average rating of the course is 9/10 and the most commonly awarded score is 10/10. I couldn’t believe it. I am now a full-time entrepreneur. I once thought I would create StrongerU for one company, but now I realize it is something for the whole world.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Shockingly, there haven’t been any big mistakes as of yet, but I am confident that as StrongerU grows there likely will be. The reality is, there is nothing like StrongerU Senior Fitness globally, so people are just so excited to learn about the solution. My only motivation is to help seniors and the organizations and individuals who serve them. If I keep that as my guiding light, then hopefully I won’t make too many mistakes.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

How much time do we have? There is a very long list of people I am grateful for. I am incredibly thankful for mentorship from Jillian Conlon and Donna Ofner from my first role at the Chronic Disease Management Program. Jillian and Donna still work at the Chronic Disease Management Program as lead Kinesiologist and Physiotherapist. I looked up to Jillian so much that I even started copying the way she moved and held her hands while she spoke to clients. I have worked with so many individuals in senior-serving organizations and there are people who you know are 100% meant to work with seniors and Jillian and Donna are it. Lynn Penko is my most pivotal mentor. She was my first manager for only a year while I was a Wellness and Vitality Assistant, but she was essential in showing me what it means to be incredibly person-centered and furthering my fitness education. Then there are all the people along the way who did tiny things to inspire or push me forward. I always think of what could have happened if my husband never came across the posting for my first position in senior living and I had never met Lynn. What if my first General Manager, Kim Giang-Ho, didn’t take a chance on a young professional with only one year of senior living experience? What if Regional Manager, Tammy Williams, didn’t recognize and foster my desire to do more and give me the opportunity to onboard and train new Life Enrichment Managers? What if that company did recognize the potential of my idea to create StrongerU and I had only created it for them? What if Vice President of Operations, Shana Bond, didn’t point me in the right direction of the hiring manager for the Regional Manager of Recreation position? What if my manager hadn’t recommended, I read Rachel Hollis’ Girl Wash Your Face which was the reason I finally decided to create StrongerU? I shudder to think that at any point during the last 10 years a small decision could have drastically changed my path. I know that all of these events, and people, came into my life for a reason. That reason is to change the face of senior fitness education and senior fitness globally.

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

StrongerU Senior Fitness is the first pre-choreographed senior fitness certification globally. I have been a pre-choreographed instructor for over 8 years. Every quarter, for the past 8 years I have received an instructional video and choreography notes to learn and teach at GoodLife Fitness. (I guess that is another person to thank! My high school dance teacher who got me my first job at GoodLife and introduced me to pre-choreographed formats!) When I started to see the lack of quality and effective programming in senior fitness, I wondered why no one had ever created a pre-choreographed senior fitness course. After years of seeing the missed opportunity to be able to keep seniors physically strong, intellectually sharp, and socially connected through fitness experiences, I built StrongerU on the pain points I witnessed:

  • Online certification: I had seen so many individuals struggle with in-person fitness courses because they had to learn complex topics at the pace of a teacher who had a timeline to maintain. I knew I wanted StrongerU to allow individuals to work at their own pace and be accessible to anyone, anywhere.
  • Monthly pre-choreographed content: This is what really sets us apart. There is no other senior fitness certification globally that provides instructors with ongoing class content, to learn and teach exactly as outlined, in four formats. We give instructors the “what” to teach incredible classes.
  • Four formats: Typically, you have to take a course for strength, a course for cardio, a course for balance, a course for flexibility, etc. I wanted to give instructors everything they needed in one place. Not additional programs as an up sell but give them a true all-encompassing program that would help them to deliver programming to truly reach the older adult physical activity guidelines. Each StrongerU Senior Fitness Instructor gains access to our four formats — Cardio, Strength, Stretch, and Circuit.
  • Incorporating the 6 dimensions of wellness: When you have a captive audience for 30-minutes or more it’s an opportunity to do more than just enhance their physical health. I find most older adults are concerned about 2 things: their balance and their brain. In every class we work toward maintaining fitness, which maintains balance, but we also place a big emphasis on intellectual engagement in each class. Intricate and interesting movement combinations challenge participants intellectually as well as physically. Research already shows that being physically active is the best thing you can do for your brain and now we intensify that benefit with the types of movement we do. We exercise to music which creates an emotional connection to the class and contributes to a fun social experience. We appoint StrongerU Ambassadors which fosters a sense of purpose, and we explore the spiritual dimension of wellness during StrongerU Stretch.

When recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals and organizations are empowered with the StrongerU content, the seniors they serve see real benefits to their overall health and fitness. This helps to prevent falls, chronic disease, and helps seniors become or remain strong and healthy. I imagine a world where we stop telling grandma to slow down and instead, we encourage her to keep active. There are so many big problems to be dealt with around the world, but rising rates of falls and chronic disease as our population ages doesn’t have to be one of them.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

  1. Challenge misconceptions about aging and exercise: I want you to think about a healthy 45-year-old individual. Imagine they get into a car accident and become paralyzed from the waist down. They are now wheelchair bound. The muscles in their legs — the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves will start to atrophy. The body says, “Why are we going to maintain these muscles with calories and energy when they are no longer being used?”. The muscles atrophy not because the person is paralyzed, but because they are not using the muscles any more. It is the same with aging. Our muscles don’t atrophy due to age, they atrophy due to inactivity. They atrophy because we tell Grandma to take it easy, or because of ageist ideas that at a certain age individuals need to slow down. It’s not true. Your muscles don’t know how old you are, they only know whether or not the current muscles you have are needed for the life you live. This is a concept that we need to challenge globally. Well-meaning kids and grandkids can unintentionally foster learned helplessness when they talk, or act, in a way that tells an older person that they should slow down or do less. We need to reprogram our minds to realize that movement, independence, and fitness is possible and essential at every age.
  2. Stop with the gentle exercise and stretching! No matter our age, we all need to be working toward the physical activity guidelines. The physical activity guidelines for older adults do not say gentle exercise and stretching. It says 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, 2 days per week of muscle and bone strengthening for all the major muscles, movements to enhance balance and prevent falls, and the more physical activity the better. If we focus on these research-backed guidelines, we will see incredible improvements in quality of life for older adults.
  3. Look past the wrinkles: How would you feel if people looked at you and assumed you needed help, couldn’t hear, or had nothing to contribute? You would feel terrible, likely depressed, unseen. Too often assumptions are made based off appearance and age. We are all aging, so we must start now to rid ourselves of often unintended ageist views. I have always looked past the wrinkles and gray hair to the person inside. I know this is the reason why I have been able to have the career I have had and create StrongerU.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

The movement I am creating is one where gentle exercise and stretching and telling grandma to slow down is something we laugh at in the history books. I want us to look back and think, “Wow, I can’t believe we used to do that”. When recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals are empowered with the right resources to teach the right exercises, the whole world will be better off. There are so many complex problems that need our attention, but the solution to keeping our aging population healthy is a simple one. By 2030, there will be 100,000’s StrongerU instructors globally and millions of seniors living more exceptional lives because of them — that’s a promise.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before Started” and why?

When I started StrongerU I had no idea what to expect. I knew my team needed the solution and I knew I had a decade worth of tested content to share, but that was the extent of my expectations. Even though I was working around the clock for over a year between my full-time job and building StrongerU, it didn’t seem like work at all. I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew it might not go as planned. But I honestly didn’t care. I didn’t create StrongerU to make money, I just wanted to help people and I knew that was something I couldn’t fail at because I had already seen the impact.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Sustainability is closest to my heart. At the rate we are going there is going to be a lack of financial and human resources to care for our aging population. We need to stop focusing on how to best ‘care for’ and instead focus on how to ‘partner with’ to prevent the negative consequences of inactivity. The good news is, it is never too late. Research shows that older exercisers can see increases in fitness and strength similar to younger exercisers. With these increases in health and fitness, seniors will be able to maintain independence and prevent chronic conditions. If we can do this, we will have more resources to tackle the much more complicated and pressing issues of our time.

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