It’s 11 o’clock in the morning and the elders at the Mohlakeng Community Centre, on Johannesburg’s West Rand, are winding down their morning fitness class.
Former teacher Tumisho Mohlabane started the class to help elderly residents take better care of their health and wellness.
The majority of attendees are pensioners between the ages of 50 and 80. Since starting the classes three months ago many members say their health has improved significantly.
Mohlabane said he started the classes because he wanted to play his part in teaching the senior members of the community about the importance of staying active and taking good care of their health, thereby avoiding illness and living longer.
“I am a retired teacher who used to be active and healthy,” he said. “Once I stopped working I was less active and started gaining weight and suffering from ailments such as high blood pressure. I had to go to the clinic for monthly check ups like many old people in this community do.”
Unhappy about the situation, Mohlabane wanted to change his lifestyle and improve his health. “I spoke to my doctor and asked him what I could do. He suggested I do some light exercise and advised me on healthy eating options.”
Mohlabane started by walking for 30 minutes every morning and doing light exercise, as well as eating healthier by adding more vegetables and fruits to his meals and cutting back on junk food.
“I was doing nothing all day after I retired. I would sit at home watching television and eating lots of sweets and deep fried meat,” he said. “I believe this led to the decline in my health. Once I started exercising and eating healthily, I felt more energised and no longer had high blood pressure that I had to treat with medication.”
Encouraged by his improved health, Mohlabane visited the local clinic and churches and invited other senior members of his community to join him in a spot of light exercise every morning. He also gave them advice on good eating.
“That was basically the birth of our daily elderly health and wellness classes. I had found something that had improved my life and wanted to help my peers improve theirs too,” he said.
Staying positive is the best way
Matsidiso Mapetla has been attending the classes since they began. At first she could hardly keep up with the rest of the group as she was struggling with arthritis.
“It’s been about three months now and I can walk fast without feeling pain in my legs and ankles as I used to,” she said. “I feel lighter too – I used to huff and puff trying to breathe properly and complete the exercises. Now I lead some of the exercises and can last beyond the duration of the class.”
The classes run from Monday to Friday between 7am to 11am, and depending on their daily routine, members can arrive at any time during the session. They start with a 30-minute jog or walk followed by exercise and games. The group then ends off by sharing stories about their week or weekend, while they do gentle exercises to wind down, before they depart.
“It’s so much fun,” said Malebo Sithole. “So many of us were suffering from all sorts of illnesses associated with being old, like diabetes, high blood pressure and arthritis, but now we are all telling a different story. A few hours of exercise and laughter, eating healthy and staying positive has really changed our lives for the best.”
Sithole said many elders in the community are dealing with challenges at home and the classes help them to escape from the stress and have some fun for a while
“The people that attend these classes are mothers, fathers, and grandparents who are caring for big households. Some have children who are sick from HIV, or are caring for their HIV-orphaned grandchildren,” said Sithole.
“Being here helps them to just take time to look after themselves and relax with their peers. Even at such an age, playing really still does wonders for one’s health and life overall.”
Mohlabane said he is hoping to bring in dieticians and other exciting guests to talk to the group about their health, and motivate them to continue on their health and wellness journey.
“I started this thinking I would just have a few neighbours join me, but we have many people now and the success has been so encouraging. There are 27 of us in the group, with more people keen to join. It doesn’t cost us anything to do this, we just have to pitch and play.”