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  • Cornell Cooperative Extension
By Melissa Jo Hill
They Zoom in from New York City, across upstate and downstate New York, the North Country, and states all across the U.S. Four mornings a week at 9 a.m., thousands of seniors join Cornell Cooperative Extension of Clinton County Executive Director Mary Breyette’s online fitness classes looking for exercise and connection. 

“Hello Irene from Ohio!” said Breyette, presenting live from her Plattsburgh, N.Y., office during one of her Monday classes. “Just so you all know, we woke up to snow this morning!”  

After greeting most of her attendees by name and exchanging pleasantries, Breyette announces: “It’s time to rock and roll!” She then guides her class through a series of seated warm-up movements before grabbing a resistance band and demonstrating more advanced exercises. 

The classes are designed to get their blood flowing and their bodies moving, but for many seniors who were unable to leave their homes or assisted living spaces—or receive visitors—the classes represent a welcome window into more normal times, and an opportunity to be social. 

For the past 11 years Breyette, who has a background in adult education and physical education, has led in-person senior fitness in Essex and Clinton Counties. Her classes range from seated “Chair Chi”—a gentle method of stretching, breathwork, and mindfulness—to classes that combine movement with weight and band resistance.  

But when community spaces and services began to shut down last March at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it threw many seniors in Breyette’s classes for a loop.  

As stories of isolation from pandemic lockdowns spread, Breyette’s concern for her neighbors in Clinton County—and seniors everywhere—grew. “In places like New York City, seniors were trapped in their apartments and literally could not go anywhere,” she said. 

That is the predicament Joan Roth found herself in at her Riverdale home in the Bronx. Roth prioritizes fitness to stay active and healthy. “Our gym closed in March,” she said. “I was lost as to what to do.” 

Breyette heard many stories like Roth’s and wanted to help. She started by contacting Senior Planet, a New York City-based organization that specializes in teaching computer and internet skills to seniors. “I said, you know how to live stream on a larger scale and I know how to teach—let’s just get this going!” Breyette said. “The first week of April we were up and running with our Zoom classes and we never looked back.”

By creating a regular schedule of online classes Breyette knew she could once again become a touchpoint for North Country seniors she serves—and maybe reach a few from beyond her region. Once Breyette contacted her regular clients in Clinton County, word about her online programming began to spread. Seniors were inviting friends and through word of mouth and the CCE Clinton County website and social media, people from across the state and country, including Cornell alums, were hearing about her free fitness classes being offered during lockdown.  

When Breyette got started online in April of 2020, there were 486 participants, including 160 new faces for her classes that month. In May, participation jumped to over 1,000. Since June of 2020, she has been averaging 2,000 participants a month. As part of the program, CCE Clinton County has curated a page of resources for seniors, including weekly health tips and recipes. 

Breyette says this effort aligns perfectly with CCE’s mission to empower individuals across New York and is a perfect vehicle for its role as a force multiplier. The program is made possible through partnerships with the Office of The Aging, Clinton County, and Senior Planet of the North Country. “It’s all about collaboration,” she says.  

“My friend who knows Mary told me about this wonderful class on zoom,” says Roth. “I started attending classes and I’m a fan. I attend four days a week, Monday through Thursday.”  

“I specifically like the way she explains how to do things to us and how she demonstrates,” Roth said. “I feel like I'm in the front row all the time.”  

For Roth, the benefits have been numerous. “I have severe osteoarthritis in my shoulder and when I went to get X-rays, they couldn’t believe how much range of motion I have. And [because of] the exercise where we stand and we sit and we stand and we sit—my knee surgeon said, ‘Boy! You have such strong quads!’ and I said to him, ‘Well I work at it with my wonderful instructor, Mary.’” 

Breyette plans to continue a hybrid offering, even as community spaces and gyms reopen. “I’m still getting new people after all this time,” she said. “People love to share. We talk about where we’re from, we talk about grandchildren. We’re in each other’s business a bit, which people enjoy, because people need that. Ultimately, I’m there to have fun. The classes feed my passion, which is working with people through education.”

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