Dedicated SilverSneakers students gather digitally for exercise, community

Local fitness instructor Tona Barnes and the seniors who attend her classes have become like family; now, they are connecting digitally

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For nearly five years, Marcia Sasser has religiously attended SilverSneakers classes at Marietta’s Just Fitness 4U.

Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Sasser is there for her workout. At 75, Sasser knows it’s good for her to keep moving and get exercise. However, for her and the other students, these classes are about more than just fitness.

There’s a dedicated group of regular attendees who Sasser describes as being like a family. They dress up for holidays and birthdays, get together for potlucks and sometimes go for lunch after class.

She’s quick to credit the tight-knit community to their instructor — Tona Barnes. In addition to SilverSneakers, a  health and fitness program available to seniors 65 years and older through many Medicare plans, Barnes teaches a variety of fitness classes as well as being a personal trainer.

Fitness plays a huge role in her life overall, but she too acknowledges that there is something special about the SilverSneakers group.

“It’s my chosen family,” Barnes said. “I’ve expanded on to my family with all of these people.”

Barnes says her students mean “the world” to her, which is why when the coronavirus outbreak hit Georgia and they could no longer gather for in-person classes, she knew she had to maintain their special connection and keep people moving.

So, almost immediately, she started hosting classes virtually. It’s not officially part of the gym or SilverSneakers programming, it’s just Barnes leading free workouts from the driveway of her Cobb County home. It’s her way of looking out for her community, she said.

For Barnes, continuing to connect with folks through fitness is a way for her to maintain some of her normal routine amid the outbreak. She also recognizes the importance of her senior students staying healthy right now.

“I don’t want my students to fall off the wagon or else they’re going to come back and they’re not going to be strong and they’re going struggle. And what better way to keep their immune system boosted than continue to work out?” Barnes said.

“It came to me pretty quick that I had to do something, I can’t sit around and sulk and these people can’t sit around and sulk — they’re my people and I want to take care of them.”

So five days a week, Barnes has been hosting workouts on Zoom and Facebook Live. She sets up both as a way to give her students options for whatever is easiest for them, she said.

For Tona Barnes’ 50th birthday, her SilverSneakers students had T-shirts made to surprise her. One student describes the group as being more like a family. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, they are adpating to digital workouts from home.

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While the technology was new to some in the group, Sasser says it has been pretty seamless for her to pick up. She had used Zoom previously for appointments with her doctor and a friend showed her how to connect her phone to her smart TV to be able to watch the classes that way, which Sasser says makes it feel like they are still coming together.

“It really feels like we’re right there in the class. Between the two mediums, I think there are almost 30 of us on everyday,” she wrote in an email. “For us seniors who tend to be technology challenged there was a slight learning curve, but eventually everyone who wanted to participate was able to figure it out, either on their own or with help from one of us.”

A couple of years ago, Sasser saw some videos online of other senior work out groups that she didn’t think were very lively. She wanted to prove that people her age can have an energetic, fun time while exercising. Their group was different, she thought  — which she again credits to Barnes’ energy  — so she decided to post a video on YouTube.

To date, the original has more than 600,000 views and she’s continued to post others. Now, even amid a pandemic, Barnes, Sasser and the others are still proving that they are different  — every weekday morning from the comfort of their own homes.