More MS news articles for April 1999

Sit-ups? No, sit down

If you're unable or unwilling to go for the fitness burn, give armchair aerobics a try

Published Wednesday, April 21, 1999, in the San Jose Mercury News

YOU'VE got to love a fitness program that involves pulling up a chair, plunking down your spreading fanny and sitting there for half an hour or two.
What's next, swimming laps in a vat of chocolate?

But chair exercise classes are not as silly as they might sound. The good routines incorporate leg lifts, arm curls, shoulder shrugs and light weights to provide participants with an all-around, low-impact workout.

Called "Sit and Be Fit," "Get Fit While You Sit," or just plain "Chair Aerobics," the programs are geared toward those who are out of shape or have physical limitations that make traditional exercising difficult. The antithesis of the "No pain, no gain" movement, chair fitness generally follows the philosophy that if exercise isn't easy, accessible and fun, many adults will skip it altogether.

"A lot of the fitness programs that we have right now take a big-time commitment and they also are for people who are already fit," explains Charlene Torkelson, a certified dance instructor whose book, "Get Fit While You Sit: Easy Workouts From Your Chair," is due out this spring. "This isn't so strenuous you feel like you can't ever do it again. This is something for everyone."

Specific chair programs have been designed for just about everyone. There are chair fitness videos created for those suffering from arthritis, stroke, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Parkinson's disease. There are chair exercises aimed specifically at children, and stretches that can be performed somewhat inconspicuously in your cubicle at work.

"We say we have an audience from 2 to 102," says Mary Ann Wilson, a registered nurse who created a "Sit and Be Fit" television series for public television in 1987. "I can't even think of anyone who couldn't do these exercises."

Programs tend to vary, but generally start with a warm-up and then a brief cardiovascular period before moving to light weightlifting and a cool-down. During the half-hour or hourlong sessions, participants may be asked to perform the breast stroke or to punch an imaginary enemy while remaining seated in their chairs. They might be told to march their feet or flap their "wings." They'll do toe taps, knee bends, neck rolls and arm lifts. And each of the exercises, no matter how simple or silly, is effective at boosting physical health, instructors believe.

"It targets every muscle group," says Dalia Nir, who teaches a chair aerobics class at Southwest YMCA in Saratoga. "It works the heart, enhances joint, muscle and tendon flexibility and it improves stamina and self-esteem."

Of course, chair fitness isn't going to get you in shape to run a marathon. But what it does do, proponents say, is give participants the strength and flexibility they need to perform everyday activities. Older drivers might find it easier to look over their shoulders when backing out of a parking space. Those with back problems may be able to get out of chairs with greater ease. Arthritics might be able to handle a pencil without experiencing pain.

"We're really looking at functional movements," says Wilson, whose program runs on two Bay Area television stations. "Our purpose is to keep people functionally fit and independent as long as possible." For Bud De Lisle, a retired toolmaker from Saratoga, chair exercises have been his ticket to wellness. Afflicted with a rare neurological disease, De Lisle, 75, was virtually paralyzed by his condition just two years ago and needed a wheelchair to get around. At first he turned to water therapy classes to rehabilitate his body, but the chlorine left him with a skin problem, he says. He didn't think chair aerobics would do much good, but when he was told the YMCA would begin offering such a program six months ago, he decided to give the class a shot.

Now he is in awe of just how helpful the program has been.

"I'm down to just one cane," he says. "If it wasn't for exercise, I'd probably still be in a wheelchair."

De Lisle isn't the only chair fitness fan. After KQED-TV (Ch. 9) eliminated the "Sit and Be Fit" show from its lineup, the Bay Area station was so inundated with viewer calls that it reinstated the program in less than a week.

A growing segment of the public has taken to the fitness regimen, Wilson believes, because it's not as hard on the body as jogging, not as hard on the pocketbook as skiing or not as hard to learn as snowboarding. Seniors don't have to fear falling while exercising, and couch potatoes don't even have to leave the comfort of their homes -- or armchairs. Expensive exercise equipment isn't necessary, either. Filled soda or soup cans will serve as light weights, and armless folding chairs provide ample support.

As a result, Wilson says she has received more than 65,000 letters from viewers over the years, thanking her for making chair fitness a part of their lives.

"They usually say, 'Surprise, surprise, I can exercise,' " she says. " 'There really is a program out there for me.' "

If you'd like to "Sit and Be Fit" -- without having to leave the comfort of your home -- you can catch Mary Ann Wilson's televised exercise series from 6-6:30 a.m. Monday-Friday on KQED-TV (Ch. 9) or weekdays from 11-11:30 a.m. on KCSM-TV (Ch. 60).

The "Sit and Be Fit" program also is available on videotape, with nearly 20 different videos to choose from. Among the tapes are six specialty titles for those suffering from arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease. One tape is available in Spanish. Prices range from $15.95 to $39.95. To order, call (509) 448-9438 or check out

The Southwest YMCA offers "Seated Chair/Wheelchair Aerobics" every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12:30-1:25 p.m. The fitness facility is at 13500 Quito Road in Saratoga. For class details, call (408) 370-1877, extension 17.

"Get Fit While You Sit: Easy Workouts From Your Chair" is due out in paperback later this spring. The guide features step-by-step photographs of dozens of different chair exercises and includes 10-minute workouts that can be performed while sitting at a desk. The book also has a chapter for individuals with specific chronic health conditions. For details, call Hunter House Publishers at (800) 266-5592.