As the senior exercise specialist for Aegis Living Madison, a priority for Donna Jornlin is helping improve the residents’ quality of life by staying healthy through physical activity.
While she has worked at Aegis Living Madison for almost six years, physical activity and exercise has played a big role in her life and career. Jornlin was an elementary school physical education teacher and a high school coach for most of her career. She also ran for her college team.
Her desire to change her focus to helping adults, however, came after her mother fell and broke her hip. That’s when Jornlin realized how important physical activity for adults was, especially balance and fall prevention.
“Fall prevention is so critical to their overall well-being,” Jornlin said.
Jornlin said her mother’s fall prompted her to receive a fitness certification with a focus on balance and stability from the University of Otago in New Zealand and another certificate needed for working with older residents.
Working on balance, mobility, strength and coordination with Aegis Madison residents is now her main focus, although her years as an elementary physical education teacher have been put to good use.
Jornlin said she gains a lot of her inspiration for new exercises or ways to make her classes fun from her previous career. Now, however, her classes are geared for exercising from a chair as the people she works with range in age from 55 to 100 and have different mobility capabilities.
“A lot of it is things that I taught in elementary school that I transferred over, while adding a safety factor,” Jornlin said.
She typically leads three classes a day, including tai chi, balance and general fitness and chair yoga.
To keep things interesting and fun for everyone, including herself, not only does Jornlin switch up the exercises, she also incorporates different tools, such as hand weights, resistance bands and balls. She said they use “ these great little squishy balls” in every class in a variety of ways, including arm and leg exercises.
Jornlin will also bring out giant beach balls for residents to kick around. She ended a recent class with a game of chair soccer that lifted everyone’s spirits while improving their leg strength and coordination.
“They started laughing and giggling when they started kicking the ball, so it’s just been a riot,” Jornlin said.
She also gets ideas from other sources, as well. Drawing from her years of taking ballet, she has incorporated a few of those techniques into her balance classes. For residents who can safely do so, Jornlin has them use the back of their chairs like a ballet barre and complete moves similar to plies — squats, in this case.
Along with balance and building strength, Jornlin said exercises that improve flexibility and mobility are also important.
She said she noticed many residents have lost range of motion in their joints, particularly their shoulders. “Frozen shoulders,” she said, prevent residents from reaching very high or behind them and impact completing everyday tasks, such as putting on clothes.
She also focuses a lot on ankle mobility because shuffling can lead to tripping, Jornlin said.
To improve mobility in ankles, she will have residents complete toe taps, point their toes in different directions or move their ankles in circles.
Her own Tai chi classes she takes outside of work also serve as a source of inspiration.
“I’m continually taking my own Tai chi classes and modifying those movements to sitting in a chair,” Jornlin said.
Her Tai chi classes have become very popular, which surprised her a little at the start, she said.
“Tai chi has been just a wonderful class to teach for meditative reasons, too,” she said, adding the breathing techniques and slow movements are helpful in reducing anxiety.
Jornlin said she also keeps things fun in her classes in other ways. The No. 1 way is with music, she said.
“We always change up the music,” she said, adding one day she might put on Johnny Cash and on another Big Band-era tunes good for toe tapping and keeping energy high.
Jornlin also works with residents individually based on their interests or to continue work begun in physical therapy so they do not lose the progress they’ve made.
And if she’s not in classes or working with residents individually, Jornlin’s walking with them.
Walking was especially important during lockdown when group classes were canceled.
To ensure residents stayed active as much as possible, all staff — not just Jornlin — went walking with them so they could get exercise or just a change of scenery and some conversation.
“And walking is just so important,” Jornlin said. “It’s more than just physical exercise. It’s about the conversations you are having.”
Jornlin was allowed to resume small-group classes in mid February when King County advanced to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, which she said has been positive.
“Just the energy that’s back in the building, it’s been terrific,” Jornlin said.
Physical activity has been especially popular since restrictions have eased, she said.
“Before COVID, it was sometimes tough to get people to come out to exercise, especially the men,” she said. “They’re not really big on classes with groups. Since we’ve had COVID, and we’ve been isolated, I don’t think anyone has turned me down for a walk.”