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Fitness spans all ages

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    Ai Cheng-Lin, 86, stretches her mind and her body at the Hawaii Academy in Kalihi. Ai's osteoporosis has improved since she enrolled in the Senior FlexFit program, which focuses on developing flexibility, strength, balance, cardio and safe falling techniques on soft mats and trampolines. Ai's husband, Wen, 86, is also enrolled in the program, which has helped him recover from a stroke.
    Jonna Otto, 63, did a back flip on a trampoline at Hawaii Academy in Kalihi. She and her mother, Helen Merrick, 91, have enrolled in the Senior FlexFit program that focuses on developing flexibility, strength, balance, cardio and safe falling techniques on soft mats and trampolines.
    Wen Cheng-Lin, 86, shared high fives with other seniors at the Hawaii Academy in Kalihi. Wen had a stroke 30 years ago and has experienced physical improvement since he enrolled in the Senior FlexFit program.
    Helen Merrick, 91, bounced on a trampoline at Hawaii Academy in Kalihi.

Seniors in their 70s, 80s and 90s climb ropes 16 to 18 feet high. They jump on the trampoline and do acrobatics or flips in a belt. Some practice safe falling, tumbling or do other gymnastics.

This is the Hawaii Academy, a unique private school in Kalihi that promotes lifetime fitness for students of all ages.

"There are lots of benefits," said Helen Merrick, 91, retired Russian and Spanish language teacher from San Jose State University. "Spry and limberness are the major things."

The trampoline is fun, she added. "It helps balance and cardiac (training) is incredible. Every muscle gets exercise when you jump."

Merrick began going to the academy about a year ago because of her daughter, Jonna Otto, 63. Otto started working out there about two years ago because of her granddaughter, Julia Flores, now nearly 8. All three are members as well as Julia’s brother, Jesse, 2, and their mother, Malia Flores (Otto’s daughter.)

The academy’s director and guru is Dr. Max Vercruyssen, head of the flexibility and fitness programs and researcher.

"Dr. Max," as he’s known to the keiki and kupuna, has been a professor or research associate at the University of Hawaii in psychology, the Center on Aging and geriatric medicine. He conducted ergonomics and gerontechnology research at universities on the mainland and in the Netherlands.

"By talking to somebody else about how to cope with that new challenge of living, they get strategies; coaching and peer coping sort of thing."

Dr. Max Vercruyssen
Hawaii Academy director and head of the flexibility and fitness programs and researcher


He’s now doing a Hawaii fitness study, describing the academy as a "laboratory" where people of all ages can be tested on fitness, strength and flexibility. He maintains records of fitness tests twice a year for as long as someone is in the program.

"The data is very valuable. It’s the only place we know where 1-year-olds to 98-year-olds are tested on some measures," he said.

Vercruyssen said he started a kupuna program as soon as he opened the academy in 1999. It grew rapidly into "more of a family thing," he said. "It’s easier to keep grandparents and children than it was parents. Parents are always too busy."

But he sees that starting to change as parents realize having kids see them exercise is the best way to persuade them to be active. "When they see grandparents and great-grandparents exercising, it’s an automatic thing. They’re going to do that the rest of their lives."

The kupuna exercise class quickly became a support group, with people sharing similar experiences, Vercruyssen said. "They link onto other people in their cohort and no matter what you encounter in life it’s here in the gym." Members have various health and physical problems — knee and hip replacements, glaucoma and other aging challenges and dysfunctions, he said.

"By talking to somebody else about how to cope with that new challenge of living, they get strategies; coaching and peer coping sort of thing." They also enjoy a lot of camaraderie, teasing and joking, he said.

Among the oldest members are Robert Ashimine, 98; Izumi Hirano, 82, head of the Hiroshima Survivors’ Group in Hawaii, and Stanley Mah, 83, retired attorney.

Mah was in his first gymnastic meet this year and his whole family cheered him on, Vercruyssen said. He won a second-place ribbon in the 80-to-89 age group.

Ashimine, a rope climber who heads five generations of academy students, "is incredibly strong," Vercruyssen said. "He did seven pull-ups in the last competition."

Hirano’s feats also include standing on his head and climbing an 18-foot rope, which he used to do "hands only," Vercruyssen said.

Hirano said he began going to the academy with two granddaughters at age 74 after one said, "Grandpa, join us. If we have three generations, we get a discount." Their mother also goes, he said.

"He is tremendously inspirational," said Michael Nakashima, former director of Hickam’s gymnastic center, who now teaches the academy’s seniors and preschool movement education program. "He is a long way above maintenance. What keeps him going is his spirit."

Lack of activity causes "a negative spiral," Vercruyssen emphasizes. "So you wear out mechanical parts (a knee or hip for example). Big deal. You have to replace the mechanical parts. You have to keep the organs and chemistry. If you’re not physically fit, you can’t counteract the effects of aging. Every person has different challenges. … It’s about coping with whatever comes."

The immediate challenge for 71-year-old Jean Morrison is to do a handspring by January. "I was at a guided meditation workshop last January and saw myself doing a handspring," she said. "The next day I came here."



The Hawaii Academy, at 1314 Moonui St. in Kalihi, offers a variety of classes and activities with state-of-the art equipment for trampoline and power tumbling, martial arts, dance, double minitrampoline and sport acrobatics.

Trampolining, an Olympic sport since 2000, "is surprisingly beneficial," said academy director Dr. Max Vercruyssen. "It’s a huge calorie burner."

Seriously impaired people can jump on the trampoline even though their feet sometimes don’t leave the bed, he said.

Seniors also spend a lot of time falling on soft mats, he said. "We’re one of the leading places in the world teaching people how to fall without injuries."

The academy has about 1,200 students, most under 10. About 70 are older than 65, and 12 are more than 70.

Discounts and nominal fees are offered to encourage people of all ages to be active. Three-generation families receive 50 percent off tuition and four- and five-generation families pay nothing.

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