Patti DeBrow, left, age 68, and Nikhil Satchidanand, PhD, pass an exercise ball between them during a segment of the fitness class.

Movers and Makers Aims to Help Older Adults Keep Fit

By Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

Published July 7, 2023


We know that being physically and mentally active is essential to maintaining our long-term health. Unfortunately, for many older adults, it’s not always part of their routines.

How can we create programs to engage and encourage adults to maintain active lifestyles as they age?

Combining Physical Movement and Art-Making

To study this question more closely, UB researcher Nikhil Satchidanand, PhD, an exercise physiologist and assistant professor of medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, created the Movers and Makers program, which combines physical movement and art-making.

“Exercise as a therapy to promote successful aging is one of the best things that we have,” Satchidanand says.

“It helps older adults preserve their physical and cognitive function, prevents and reduces frailty, and enhances health span and physical resilience. Yet, we still don’t fully understand how best to encourage older adults to adopt and maintain active lifestyles long term.”

With a grant from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, Satchidanand has worked with countless community members to implement this program.

Individuals 65 years and older spend an hour a week in a group-based movement class and another hour in an art class over the course of the 12-week program. It most recently ran from April through June at the William-Emslie Family YMCA in Buffalo and at the Ken-Ton Family YMCA in Tonawanda.

The exercise portion of the program is based on the SMARTfit Cognitive-Motor Exercise System, an exergaming platform that uses gaming technology to deliver exercise.

Emphasis on Fun and Social Support

Satchidanand says Movers and Makers is like a recreation camp for older adults. The program creates a space for socialization and social support while providing participants a sense of community and accountability, which to his mind are critically important for the program’s success.

“When it comes to exercise, most people aren’t going to choose to do something that’s not enjoyable,” says Satchidanand, who based the exercise portion of the program on the SMARTfit Cognitive-Motor Exercise System, an exergaming platform that uses gaming technology to deliver exercise.

“In our sessions, participants play and laugh together, and are enjoying themselves while participating in engaging, impactful, cognitive-motor exercise, which fosters a desire to keep coming back.”

The art-making portion of the program offers varied projects — from watercolor painting to collage — to keep participants interested and engaged.

Challenging Participants on Multiple Levels

A similar process is at work in the art program, which was developed and is led by Sara Opalka-Satchidanand, Satchidanand’s wife. Opalka-Satchidanand has a master’s degree in fine art and has been teaching art to veterans and older adults for over 10 years.

“A program delivering both group-based exercise and art-making challenges folks on multiple levels,” Opalka-Satchidanand says. Every week the art is different, from watercolor painting to collage using mixed media. Opalka-Satchidanand says the variety of projects helps keep participants interested and engaged, as many haven’t done art in years. Their comfort level with art also increases as they complete the different projects.

Since this is a research study, everyone is assessed at the start and end of each 12-week program.

Satchidanand and his team measure walking speed, balance, lower body strength, and fine and gross motor skills, as well as several cognitive domains including attention, task-switching and working memory. Participants are also asked to provide extensive feedback about their experiences.

“It is important that we hear directly from program participants so that we can create the very best Movers and Makers program possible, that is both feasible and relevant to community members,” Satchidanand says.

His plan is to continue working with the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York to develop a sustainable program that can be placed and run by others in more community venues, such as other YMCAs, community centers and churches. He plans to step back from teaching SMARTfit classes to train future instructors, but recognizes that personal involvement was instrumental to the program’s early successes. 

“I have come to really value my work with the community and being able to witness directly the improvements in function and quality of life that exercise brings,” Satchidanand says. “It will be difficult for me to give up the teaching completely. I’ve really enjoyed the hands-on experience and working with the Buffalo-Niagara YMCA to help support older adults in our community.”