West Lebanon — Lydia Johnson and her trainer are showing that generating progress in the realm of personal fitness is possible, even while grappling with a degenerative illness.
Johnson, 68, was diagnosed in 1983 with ataxia, a neurological condition affecting the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for muscular coordination.
She has suffered three broken bones and other setbacks attributable to the illness, she said, but hasn’t fallen or suffered any major injuries since beginning work with Aaron Warner following a chance encounter five years ago.
“I was walking near (White River Junction’s) Hotel Coolidge and heard her fall,” said Warner, owner of Good News Fitness. “I asked if she was OK, sat down with her in the cafe there and found out she was doing her prescribed physical therapy, but not much else. I told her I might be able to help.”
Warner and Johnson have been utilizing the principles of Optimum Performance Training (OPT), a model developed by the National Academy of Sports Medicine aiming to improve stabilization, balance, strength and other functional abilities.
Warner, who’s trained clients at Anytime Fitness in West Lebanon since 2007, has used OPT for years to train athletes — but never one with ataxia.
“Exercise is a very broad term. You’ve got everything from ‘Insanity’ workouts to yoga and a whole spectrum in between,” Warner said. “The good thing about OPT is that it’s based on scientific research where the results are testable. That said, to use it with a person with ataxia was pretty intimidating for me.
“We didn’t know exactly what kind of progressions or regressions we’d see. There’s a National Ataxia Foundation and there is one book out about exercising (with ataxia), but it isn’t very good. Lydia and I decided together that we were going to try this and see what we found. It’s been sort of a pioneering type of training.”
Results have been excellent for Johnson, who has shown improvements in balance, coordination and strength. During a recent workout with Warner, she was able to stand on a ½-foam roller piece on one foot with very little support from her trainer, who held her hand during the exercise.
“At this point, me being here is more of a safety net,” Warner said. “When we first started, she would be gripping my hand as though she were going to rip it off. She’s actually gotten better with muscle coordination over the last five years despite the degenerative nature (of ataxia).”
Another example of Johnson’s coordination improvement came while traversing a set of miniature hurdles, stationed in a straight line. She barely nicked any of them, though it was more challenging than it might have appeared.
“(Ataxia makes it) hard to stop when I want to, when I need to,” Johnson said while approaching the end of the hurdles line. “It doesn’t always register in the brain.”
Johnson also made it look easy while traipsing through a prone agility ladder. Warner equated the rungs of the ladder to cracks on a sidewalk.
“I always say, ‘Don’t step on the cracks or you’ll break your mother’s back.’ Lydia, let’s see how much you like your mother,” Warner told her, exuding the playfulness with which the pair often interacts. Johnson stepped on just two rungs while running back and forth along the ladder for about 90 seconds.
“A big part of this model is monitoring errors, and as you can see Lydia had very few,” Warner said. “The first time she did this, she probably had 30, so it’s a huge improvement.”
Warner has been particularly impressed with Johnson’s progress on the barbell, on which she’s squatted up to 100 pounds. On Tuesday, she executed three sets of 10 reps with 65 pounds, grunting minimally as Warner spotted her.
“There was a time I never would have guessed we’d be getting a barbell on her body,” Warner said. “I don’t know very many 68-year-old women who don’t have a degenerative disorder who do a lot with barbells, so it goes to show you how far she’s come along.”
Johnson, a North Hartland resident and Woodstock Union High graduate, said the training has been as much of a benefit cognitively as physically.
“It helps me focus on my movements, not only when I’m here but when I’m home or out and about,” she said. “You don’t fall as much when you’re focusing.”
A bit shy when she first began coming to the gym, Johnson has grown so comfortable with her training that she comes in to work out even when Warner isn’t available, as she did last week when Warner was on a trip in New York.
The pair even recently hiked Gile Mountain in Norwich, reintroducing Johnson to a favorite pastime.
“It was tough, but I made it all the way to the top of the fire tower,” she said. “It was beautiful. I hadn’t been hiking in a long time.”
Jared Pendak can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3225.