Sit and Be Fit host promotes healthy aging through functional fitness

Being a fitness expert, it’s appropriate that Mary Ann Wilson is being interviewed at the Central Spokane YMCA. It’s ironic, however, because this is a place she’s never visited before. Wilson is the creator and host of public television’s Sit and Be Fit, the half-hour exercise program designed for older adults and those with physical limitations. Rather than fancy workout equipment, the show focuses on using a simple, everyday chair as the main exercise tool. Moves are gentle and slow, making them perfect for people of all ages and abilities.

The nationally syndicated show– produced locally at KSPS-TV, and now in its twelfth season – got its start in1985 when Wilson was asked by Spokane Community College to develop a stretching and toning program for seniors. The classes were so popular that Wilson, a retired Registered Nurse, took the idea to the public TV station where her mission of promoting healthy aging, increasing independence and improving quality of life. Now broadcast to an estimated 66 million viewers, Sit and Be Fit teaches therapeutic exercises including core strengthening, balance work, stretching and relaxation.

With the help of her daughter Gretchen, Wilson designs each of the 20 season episodes to be effective, motivating and fun – many of the routines are set to music to keep things lively. She consults with doctors, physical therapists and senior fitness specialists in creating workouts that involve not just regular body conditioning, but also brain fitness, proper posture and even improving reaction times.

One thing you’ll quickly discover about Wilson whether you watch her on her show or meet her in person – as did a group of seniors recently when she led a class in New York City’s Central Park, is that while her persona is quiet and friendly, her passion for fitness is truly inspiring.


Can you define what you refer to as “functional fitness?”

It’s the kind of fitness that you need in order to perform your everyday activities. If you think about what a person has to do all day long; sitting down, standing up, getting in and out of a car, getting up and down off a toilet, these are the kinds of activities that would fall under the heading of functional fitness. The idea behind my program is to keep older adults independent as long as possible. It’s not fun to have to depend on other people to carry out your activities of daily life


How has the definition of “fitness” changed over the years?

It’s gone from bodybuilding as Jack LaLanne taught it or high intensity cardiovascular workouts to a broader definition that includes balance, cognitive function and wellness. Sit and Be Fit programs take a more holistic approach. We balance out the body by stretching the tight muscles and strengthening the weak ones. If someone does Sit and Be Fit or some other form of gentle exercise, they will avoid many of the aches and pains that naturally come with aging.


What misconceptions do seniors have about fitness?

Many older adults, especially those in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, think that fitness has to be strenuous, that they have to break a sweat and it takes a lot of energy and time. The biggest misconception is that it’s too late to start.


In general, how do our fitness needs change as we age?

You hate to say, “Everything is going downhill,” but you do lose muscle and bone mass as you age. However, exercise slows down that process. If we want to enjoy life in our later years, exercise needs to become part of our everyday life. You don’t want to get to a certain age and not be able to do all the fun things that you thought you’d be able to do.


What are the risks involved (if any) for seniors attempting a fitness regime?

Probably the biggest danger is doing too much too soon. You’ve got to be smart about it and listen to your body. It’s good to be involved in a class where an instructor can guide you.


In regards to baby boomers who have been active and continue to be so, what changes do they need to make in their lifestyle as they age to prevent injury and wear and tear on their bodies? Or do they not need to slow down at all?

For the most part, if you listen to your body you’ll know your limits. If we want to avoid injury, moderation and progressing gradually should be part of the equation.


Is personal fitness a lifestyle, commitment or necessity?

All of the above!  Fitness must become a priority and a way of life. Just as we maintain our cars to keep them running efficiently, we have to do the same for our bodies. You’ve got to make that commitment and make it part of your lifestyle.


What can seniors do to stay motivated to continue exercising?

You’ve got to find something that you really enjoy. In designing Sit and Be Fit programs, I make it fun through music and choreography. For some, motivation involves being accountable to others. For example, we have some great community resources here in Spokane such as the Striders walking program or exercise classes offered through senior centers or the community colleges. It’s also a good idea to integrate exercise into everything that you do – the basics of how you hold yourself, your posture and how you take a deep breath, are the foundation for good fitness.


What is your reward in hosting Sit and Be Fit?

I love the public television outreach and getting this program into the hands of people who really need it. The greatest reward comes from phone calls, emails and letters, from viewers who say things like, “I know God led me to this because I turned on the television and there you were! It was everything my doctor was telling me to do.” Sit and Be Fit makes people feel better, and when they feel better, they know they’re doing something good for their bodies, and I know I’m doing my part to make the world a better place.


“Sit and Be Fit” airs locally five days a week on PBS channel 7 at 11:30 a.m. The website is