Ellen Coven didn't set out to be a queen of Long Island's senior fitness scene. It just happened. In a way, just like the aging of Long Island happened -- naturally.
Coven, who lives in Jericho, started teaching dance-exercise classes at her local library in 1974. "About 1980, I began to see that the demographics were changing," recalled Coven, now 69.
Her students, who had originally been a mix of young and old, began aging. "I started to see a lot of people in their 60s," she said. "I realized we needed to modify the moves."
Out with the high-impact, Jane Fonda-like routines. Instead, Coven began experimenting with gentler exercises that emphasized balance, mobility, lower-body strength: all physical attributes important to seniors and which are now commonly classified under the rubric of "functional fitness." It encompasses exercise that helps train you for the basic functions of life as you age: getting out of a chair, reaching for a box on the shelf, climbing up a flight of stairs.
Of course, no one called it that in those days. While senior fitness is now recognized as a specialty in itself, there was little research on exercise for older adults in the 1980s -- when the oldest boomers were in their 40s and the youngest were in their late teens. So Coven developed her own program. "I found what worked, what didn't," she said.
What worked was key to her success. Coven's senior-oriented fitness classes have long since expanded to seven libraries in Nassau County. Her class offerings for older adults -- which attract on average 25-40 participants per class -- include Seniorobics (an aerobics dance class featuring Broadway show tunes and hits from the 1940s and 1950s); Simply Stronger (which helps seniors increase their strength); and Simply Stretch (a flexibility class for aging bodies).
Now, after more than 40 years of exercise instruction, she's preparing to wind down. Coven's husband, Lon, 71, recently retired from his career as a private investigator. The couple, who have two grown children and four grandchildren, bought a house in the seaside community of Lewes, Delaware, and are moving there in late August. "We want a simpler, slower life," she said. With a laugh, she adds, "I'm tired after 40 years of exercise classes."
As her classes have evolved, so has the audience. In the early years, "older" might have meant ages 65 and above; now, nonagenarians and great-grandparents are not uncommon. "It used to be a novelty," Coven said. Now, "Older adults are more aware these days of the many health benefits of regular exercise and are more willing to make physical activity an important part of their lives."
That mindset has helped Coven's popularity. "She has quite a following," said Pam Martin, program director for the Syosset Library, where Coven teaches a weekly, hourlong combination of Simply Stronger and Simply Stretch. Class capacity is 24, and Martin said it is always full. "I think the reason for that is Ellen herself: her personality and her warmth and the fact that she gets to know each patron."
Syosset is just one stop on Coven's senior fitness circuit. She regularly teaches 15-20 classes a week at libraries in Jericho, Plainview, Hicksville, Wantagh, North Bellmore and Bethpage. Students register for classes and pay $5 for each session.
At a recent Thursday morning class at the Plainview-Old Bethpage Library, Coven was like a little engine herself -- all 5-foot-2 of her, rolling along nonstop for 45 minutes: cajoling, exhorting, demonstrating to a group of 39 women and one man.
"Arms up and reach!" she called out during the warm-up, as the group, gathered in the library's lower-level activity room, raised their arms. "Let's march!" The group walked in place to the upbeat disco music Coven plays on her iPod. Technology has been a boon to Coven. In the early years, she hauled around a record player to provide the beat.
Coven keeps a careful eye on her students as she leads them through the movements. She knows most of them by name: "Mimi, awesome!" she said. "Vicki, that's good! Joan, you're doing great."
The "equipment" in this class is minimal: chairs, stability balls, light hand-weights and elastic tubing. Many of the exercises involve only body weight. Each movement is accompanied by a reminder of why they're doing what they're doing. "Torso muscles are the foundation of everything you do!" she calls out to the class, as they perform standing leg lifts, holding onto the chairs.
Exercise has been the foundation of Coven's life: A native of Fresh Meadows, Queens, she earned her Red Cross swimming certification as a teenager. She went to Queens College, where she earned her B.S. in health and physical education. After graduation in 1967, she taught elementary school physical education in Carle Place and Great Neck. As a fitness instructor, she has appeared on TV, and also wrote a 1992 book, "Seniorobics" (copies can still be purchased on Amazon). But it's the live classes that seems to be her milieu, an observation confirmed at the end of the Thursday class, when participants swarmed a reporter, eager to express their love for their teacher.
Among them were some of those great-grandparents who have become regulars in Coven's classes.
"It's all Ellen!" proclaimed 81-year-old Suzi Gould of Hicksville, who has 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. "Her classes encourage me to exercise, which isn't my favorite thing."
Joyce Swerdling, 83, of Plainview, who has 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, agrees. "Ellen is the best," she said. A student of Coven's for 10 years, Swerdling said she was self-conscious initially. "The first class, I felt like a goof. She said, 'Stick with it.' I'm glad I did."
Other's chimed in: "Ellen cares, that's the most important thing." "It's a gift she has. She relates to people. She enjoys what she does and she's very good at what she does."
Stan George, 66, of Plainview, the lone male in the class, said, "The first time I took this class, I thought 'I'm not going to get a good workout here,' I was wrong. It was great. Five years later, I'm still coming."
George said the strength he's gained in Coven's class helps him with his tennis game. Others seem to enjoy the camaraderie as much as the exercise, which may explain why so many of her students sounded distraught over Coven's planned departure. Although she has two hand-picked, seasoned instructors taking over her classes, there's no getting around the fact that Coven's students will miss her.
"I'm very upset," said 88-year-old Mimi Hirsch of Plainview, who has been taking Coven's classes for 30 years. "I've known her not just as an instructor but as a friend."
Coven said she has always enjoyed working with older adults. "The thing I like most is that because a lot of these people are sedentary when they start, you see improvement very fast. And you see the joy they get from that."
The truth is that she hopes to continue teaching fitness classes to seniors in Delaware -- although she's not sure where yet. Still, even the nonstop fitness machine that is Ellen Coven is ready to slow down the tempo a bit.
"If I can teach two classes a week," she said, "I'll be a happy camper."
A pro's tips for finding the right exercise class
Ellen Coven offers these tips for finding an exercise class that's right for you.
--Join a class that is reasonably priced and easy to get to from your home.
--Choose a class led by an experienced and certified instructor who will listen to your concerns, answer your questions and provide accurate information.
--Look for a class that is paced to upbeat music that you enjoy.
--Look for a happy group: Laughter makes the workout a fun experience!
--Chart your progress: See how many reps you can do one week versus the next. See if you can increase the weight you're using, or stand steadier on one foot.
--Classmates are important. Are they welcoming? Encouraging? Willing to share advice? If the answer is "yes," you're more likely to stick with the class and reap the benefits.