It's 7:30 on a Friday morning, and 15 participants in the Westside Family YMCA gym are busy moving their bodies to the rhythm of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing." Ranging in age from 58 to 86, the majority are enrolled in the YMCArdiac Therapy Program because fate and their doctors gave them an ultimatum: Exercise regularly or risk a heart attack. What they didn't expect was to have a good time doing it.
"At the beginning, it's like a prescription that you have to swallow. Whether you like it or not, you have to be up [early] to do this class," said nurse Nava Danovitch, one of the program's two directors. "Then they discover that this class leaves them with energy to do things they haven't done before."
Available six days per week, the program is geared toward men and women who have, or are at-risk of developing, coronary artery disease. It involves a supervised exercise session which incorporates stretching, aerobic workout and cool down. Under the guidance of a fitness instructor and cardiac nurses trained in advanced life support, participants exercise to get their heart beats to a target rate. They learn about nutrition and how to monitor their pulses so they can accelerate or slow down their pace as appropriate. Most attend three days per week.
Yet the class has evolved into more than an exercise program. "It might seem funny to be saying this about the YMCA, but it's a very haimish group," Bob Schiller said. The 83-year-old retired TV writer on shows such as "All in the Family" joined the program about three years ago following bypass surgery. "Everybody looks out for everybody else," he said.
The group of about 35 members celebrates members' birthdays, performs skits at an annual potluck, and kibitzes over bagels and cream cheese (low fat, of course) every Friday. Announcements given at each session often provide news about participants who aren't in attendance.
Irwin Clamage, 83, has been attending the program for 25 years. "Why do I keep coming? Because I have to. The key to the program is that you like coming because of the camaraderie. It makes the hour of exercise go by quickly. That's hard to do alone."
The YMCArdiac Therapy Program, which is only available at the Westside location, began 27 years ago as a joint effort between the American Heart Association and the YMCA to address the growing problem of heart disease. Participants must be referred by their doctor, provide a medical history, and initially undergo blood pressure and EKG monitoring before, during and after exercise sessions. Once participants have acclimated, they're monitored monthly. The nurses keep charts for each participant, and maintain regular contact with participants' cardiologists.
"The byproduct of coming to our program is that you're going to lose weight, help control your blood pressure, control your diabetes or whatever other things you have going on," explained nurse Jill Gotlieb, the program's other director. "But the emphasis is to work your heart -- to keep your heart muscle healthy. By increasing your heart rate from resting to an exercise heart rate for 30 minutes, it will help your heart grow stronger and be a better pump muscle for your whole body."
Danovitch noted that people who have been diagnosed with a heart condition often experience depression and a loss of confidence in their bodies. But when they come to the class and are welcomed by members of the group, they begin to feel comfortable and are fully participating within a couple of weeks, she said. "And in a few months, they're taking trips abroad. Their peers don't do half of what they do."
For more information about the YMCArdiac Therapy Program, contact the Westside Family YMCA at (310) 575-0272 or visit ymcardiac.wnyinternet.com.