Saying no to Limitation: Senior Fitness With Mary Varga

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Mary Varga comes to class wearing a SilverStrength embroidered zip-up vest, her brown, wispy hair down and away from her face. Peppy classic oldies — Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Tommy Dorsey — play through her portable speaker. It’s a Thursday morning at Sunrise Senior Living near the Woods of St. Thomas off U.S. 42. Ol’ Blue Eyes croons “Come Fly With Me” in a living room as Varga counts down from eight reps. “Sit up straight; pull in the stomach,” she says to the group of 12 that grows slowly as stragglers trickle in.

You wouldn’t guess anyone taking the class actually needs the surrounding walkers, based on the seniors’ ability to keep up with the tiny and fit 54-year-old Varga. You also might not have guessed that the class instructor isn’t physically able to scrape ice off a car, let alone drive one. Not since an automobile accident 15 years ago left Varga with a traumatic brain injury. After years of physical therapy following the accident, including learning to walk again, Varga, formerly a pharmaceutical sales rep, decided to become a personal trainer. The native Louisvillian has always been interested in fitness, and she used to run and frequent the gym before her accident. After getting certified for personal training, Varga was put on the payroll at Baptist East/Milestone Wellness Center. “But I couldn’t get any clients,” she says. “A club full of able-bodied people — who’s going to pick me?”

In 2010, she came up with the idea to start SilverStrength (formerly ElderFit), a group fitness class that helps seniors develop better strength, posture and balance. “I’m perfect for older people,” she says. “As a brain-injury survivor, my body wants to lean just like an older person. I’m constantly telling people to elevate the rib cage and bring the neck up.” Varga says her experience in physical therapy taught her more than her senior fitness certification. Her emotional perspective is also helpful for her classes. Her website says: “Personal independence is such a valued priority in life. I have spent years gradually regaining mine. So I’ll spend some time discussing exercises to help you hang on to yours.” Because of her injury, she has a raspy voice that can be hard to understand. But it doesn’t interfere with class. “If they can’t hear me or understand me,” she says, “they can just watch me.” Her classes include lots of core work — twisting while seated, arm raises with dumbbells, leg lifts — all while having fun.

She teaches at Sunrise a couple times a week, along with Highland Court Apartments and Royal Ambassador condos, among others, averaging 10 classes a week. It’s quite a schedule for someone who can’t drive, and thus she has a driver. “After so many years of not feeling like I fit,” she says, “it’s nice to be able to help people.” And she gets plenty of positive feedback from her regulars. As class ends and everyone clears out, Claire Bloch, a sharp older woman with coiffed gray hair, tells me that her daughter has noticed an improvement in Bloch’s walking and balance. Babs Lobred, who has come to class since day one, says of Varga, “She’s remarkable. She gives us a hard workout. Really roughs us up.”

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