A 71-year-old woman shuffles into the room, head and shoulders hunched forward, unsure of herself. Several years later, she enters the same room but stands tall and confident. As she takes her seat in the circle, ready for the exercise class that’s about to begin, she tells the woman next to her, “This changed my life.”
She’s talking about Ageless Grace, a program of 21 exercises designed with neuroplasticity in mind.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself in response to changes in environment, emotion, thought and behavior. In other words, you can teach your brain new tricks. One way to retool your brain? Move your body.
The research on neuroplasticity may be on a level with rocket science, but bringing its implications into daily life is surprisingly simple. “Turns out it’s easy,” says Ageless Grace founder and creator Denise Medved of Hendersonville. “We can change our life quality by changing our brain. The way we bring the rocket science into daily life is to play and to practice.”
Practiced 10 minutes daily, only three exercises (dubbed “tools”) at a time, Ageless Grace builds up the pathways that conduct messages between body and brain. With names like “Spaghetti Spine” and “Rockin’ Rockettes,” the tools mix chair-seated movement and favorite tunes with imaginative gestures and a big dose of fun. Practiced consistently, these exercises restore the brain-body connections made in decades past while reinforcing connections of recent vintage and building new links.
As the tools of Ageless Grace strengthen these connections, says Medved, they enhance five body-mind functions — strategic planning, memory and recall, analytical thinking, creativity and imagination, and kinesthetic learning.
“Ageless Grace is about functioning,” she explains. “How do I feel, and how do I function? I want to be able to race my grandchildren to the mailbox. I want to meet my great-great-grandchildren. I don’t want to be an observer. I want to participate fully in my own life.”
Medved’s in her 60s, but her vitality makes the concept of age seem irrelevant. Born with malformations in her feet and spine, she went through many surgeries and endured much pain well into her 30s. Then, faced with being wheelchair-bound, Medved chose an alternative: daily movement.
That daily movement soon included Nia, neuromuscular integrative action, which focuses on expressive mind-body fitness. One of the program’s first instructors, Medved has taught Nia for 30 years, attaining the first degree black belt that marks its highest level of proficiency. She’s also trained Nia instructors around the world in a curriculum that includes not only movement but also intensive studies in anatomy and kinesiology.
Growing up in rural Tennessee, Medved watched the different ways in which members of her family aged. Physical and mental disability afflicted some. But her father, devoted to physical fitness, stayed “sharp as a tack” until the day he died. One of her grandmothers, a woman who constantly walked and often crocheted, “died healthy” at age 88.
Medved’s motivation for developing Ageless Grace springs from this background as well as her continuing interest in older people. “When I was a little girl,” she says, “I had three penpals who were over the age of 80. I’ve always thought that older people are really cool.”
Wanting to learn more about the aging process, Medved enrolled in Western Carolina University in 2001 as a graduate student in gerontology. She intended to get a master’s degree. But she left the program in order to make a real impact on people’s lives. “I got so excited by research on the functions of the brain, what you need to do to activate those functions. I said, ‘I’m not going to just keep reading about it. I’m going to do it.’”
Ageless Grace developed over seven years of testing and tweaking, Medved recalls. “We kept matching what we were doing with what parts of the brain we wanted to activate.”
Medved’s pilot programs at Pardee Hospital’s rehab and long-term care centers welcomed men and women with a wide range of ages and abilities. Her students included people recovering from injuries and surgeries as well as those with moderate to advanced cognitive decline. At first the exercises were designed for standing; now they’re practiced while sitting. The exercises specifically drawn from yoga and tai chi were set aside; an instructional “playbook,” flashcards, and a DVD set were added.
Medved holds a global vision for Ageless Grace: “I really believe that the people who are teaching it and the people who are practicing it can change the model of aging in the world.”
To date, people are moving and shaking à la Ageless Grace in all 50 states as well as in 12 nations around the world, including Australia, Canada, England and South Africa. Ireland, New Zealand and Poland will soon be hosting Ageless Grace educator trainings, says Medved.
Educators bring Ageless Grace to settings such as retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes — enterprises that need to provide residents with opportunities to exercise. The program’s reach extends further, to wellness centers and lifelong learning venues. Marty Broda, for example, conducts classes at UNC’s Wellness Center at Meadowmont in Chapel Hill; Carol Gerson offers Ageless Grace at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville.
Jill Hill’s neighbor in Horseshoe came to her for Ageless Grace following a motorcycle accident; he’d broken every bone in his face. “He was so excited when he’d done ‘Spelling B’ [tool No. 3, drawing letters in space] with his eyes.”
Some research organizations, says Medved, are considering long-term studies of Ageless Grace in order to measure the program’s impact on people’s well-being. “But,” she notes, “the results are obvious. Everybody who teaches it says, ‘Oh my gosh, I can see my students changing, I can see myself changing.’ And they come in with stories all the time.”
Referring to the 71-year-old woman who once shuffled into class, she continues: “I saw her at the beginning, and now it’s like she’s a different person. It’s like she’s un-aged five years.”
However much Medved celebrates youthful vitality, she isn’t an anti-aging crusader. “Aging is a good thing,” she maintains. “We want to do it for as long as we can. We want to do it well.”
For more on Ageless Grace or to find a class close to you, visit agelessgrace.com.