The fitness chairwoman of Long Beach

Magda Rosenberg leads a chair yoga class at Magda Rosenberg leads a chair yoga class at the Long Beach library. (April 5, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

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'You should exercise, whatever your age may be. It is never too late to take advantage of what life has to offer. It is not too late now for you to learn to be in control of your body, to make it work for you and not against you in the years to come."

That advice may sound like it came from this month's AARP Bulletin, or a local news report, on the importance of exercise for seniors. In reality, it was written 36 years ago by Magda Rosenberg, a Long Beach resident and longtime exercise teacher.

In her book, "Sixty Plus & Fit Again," Rosenberg outlined what was then an unusual idea for older folks -- offering a physical activity plan that, she promised, could restore function and enhance mobility.

The book was published in 1977 by M. Evans and Company and is no longer in print. Today, with most of her views about the benefits of exercise for seniors now validated by research, Rosenberg, who doesn't want her age published, seems prescient.

Sure, there were pioneers in the fitness field, like Jack LaLanne, who encouraged people to stay in shape through exercise on his TV show that started in 1951 and was still popular in the 1980s. And others, like Jane Fonda, whose 1980s VHS workout tapes took exercise to new heights, pushing women to "feel the burn." But Rosenberg believes she was ahead of the wave of medical and fitness experts who, in recent years, have emphasized how important it is for older adults to keep moving. She sees herself as a sort of exercise pioneer for seniors who has long advocated the benefits of staying fit.

On a recent weekday, she was surrounded by 20 older adults -- 18 women and two men -- on metal chairs arrayed in the living room of her tidy Long Beach cottage. Even while they're seated, she's got them in motion, their feet, their arms, their torsos, swaying to the sizzling fiddles of klezmer music over her compact disc player.

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"Feel the music!" she says in the booming voice that still carries distinct traces of her native Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). "Smile! Move the feet, move the body!"

Moving them for 40 years

This is a variation of the same class that Rosenberg has been giving in Long Beach for almost 40 years. In the early 1970s, she used to take walks on the boardwalk and noticed the residents of the nursing homes sitting idle on benches. "I said to the owners [of the nursing homes], 'Let me come in and move these people,' " she recalls. They did, and before long she was giving exercise classes not only at senior residences, but also at community centers in the city.

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During the past 10 years, she had been holding her "chair yoga" class at the Long Beach Library, until superstorm Sandy came through and made that space unusable. That's when she decided the class was too important to suspend indefinitely and offered her house as the venue until the library reopened.

Chair-based exercise was virtually unheard of when Rosenberg began advocating it as a way for seniors to get active. Now, it's commonplace. "It's a very safe way of exercising," Rosenberg explains. "It relieves the pressure on the spine . . . you can't get injured."

She knows that jogging or walking or other vigorous activities are fine for some. But for many of her older students, Rosenberg says, the safety of the chair and the support of the group are the most comfortable and accessible ways for them to exercise.

"It's much easier for me to exercise in a group," says Dorothy Fried, 84, a Long Beach resident who has been taking Rosenberg's classes since the late 1970s. "She's good, she's doesn't make it that you're exhausted, but you get something out of it. I'm more energetic after I do this."

At 54, Patty Labriola, also of Long Beach, is one of Rosenberg's younger students. "She's amazing . . . so inspiring," she says.

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While it may not be high intensity, it is indeed high energy at Rosenberg's house -- and she provides much of the voltage. It's a bit of a performance, as Rosenberg, who tested the waters as a stand-up comic more than two decades ago, likes to do shtick between the gentle stretching and strengthening chair-based movements.

Like this one:

"You know I was once telling a class about the importance of strengthening the muscles. I told them that an easy way to do this was to take your pocketbook, put a 12-ounce can of soup in it and lift. Like this." She pantomimes the movement of lifting a heavy pocketbook up and down. "One woman in the audience raised her hand. She had a question. 'What kind of soup?' "

Ba-dump-bump.

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Lighthearted but serious

The class lasts an hour or so, and while it has a lighthearted spirit, there is science behind it: Rosenberg has a master's degree in exercise physiology from Adelphi University, which she earned in 1981. Bob Otto, PhD, director of the university's exercise performance lab, remembers Rosenberg as one of his first students. "She was ahead of her time in terms of the activity she was prescribing and doing," Otto recalls.

He remembers something else about Rosenberg, too. "She was . . . staunch in her beliefs," Otto says with a chuckle. "Strong-willed."

Some would say that personality trait has served her well. Like everyone in her living room this day, she is a survivor of the devastation wrought by Sandy. When the library was damaged by the superstorm, Rosenberg held free classes in her home every Tuesday. Many came, but many others, she said, "we still haven't heard from. We don't know where they are. It's such a tragedy."

A widow for 25 years, with four grown children and five grandkids, Rosenberg knows from tragic: she is a Holocaust survivor, wrenched from her family and forced to work in a Nazi munitions factory in Germany during World War II. While there, she lost the lower part of her left arm in an accident. When she wound up as a refugee in England after the war, she was examined by a doctor who gave her some exercises, with a firm directive: "You must do these. If you don't, the muscles on the left side of your body will eventually deteriorate."

An active child before the war, Rosenberg did the exercises diligently. Even later, when she moved to the United States in the 1950s, married and had children, she didn't become sedentary. Over the years, she became convinced that exercise could do for older adults what it had done for her as a young girl exposed to the unspeakable horrors of the concentration camps.

And the words from "Sixty Plus" that she wrote in 1977 still ring true.

"Why exercise? For independence, for health, for beauty. To prove that usefulness does not end with retirement, when the house is empty of children, when a person becomes a 'senior citizen.' Whatever your age, there are years of living ahead of you. What you do with them depends on you."

She continues to preach it and to live it.

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