Keep your mission front of mind and ensure it guides you in all decisions: I often get the question, “What has been your biggest mistake since starting your company?”. Oddly, there really are none. There have been tons of learnings, but I believe there have not been any mistakes because I ensure that every decision is made with the seniors and recreation professionals I have been tasked to serve in mind. Let your mission guide all your decisions.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Emily Johnson.
Emily is the Founder and Creative Director of StrongerU Senior Fitness. The first senior fitness certification globally to empower recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals and senior-serving organizations such as retirement communities and senior centers with 30-minutes of new class content every month helping them to deliver quality, safe, effective, and engaging fitness experiences. She is on a mission to change the way the world thinks about ‘senior fitness’.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I started my career in senior living as a Wellness and Vitality Assistant at Amica at Aspen Woods. I was fortunate to work with and be mentored by the incredible Lynn Penko. A year later, I became the Life Enrichment Manager at Verve Senior Living, where I inherited a team of two assistants.
Coming from a community where Lynn and I had such a robust and high-quality fitness program, I was shocked at how limited the active aging offerings were for residents as well as my new team’s lack of training. Over the course of re-training them, I thought, “There should be a pre-choreographed senior fitness program where instructors receive a video and choreography notes to learn and teach exactly as outlined.” This would ensure that regardless of someone’s background or years of experience, they could deliver a quality and safe fitness program to the seniors they were working with. Since no such program existed, I developed and shared my fitness class choreography with the team and taught them my formula for creating dynamic fitness classes.
Verve Senior Living provided me with great opportunities to lead national initiatives and onboard new Life Enrichment Managers. Through these opportunities, I started to envision that I might be able to bring my idea of a pre-choreographed senior fitness series to life and help the entire company to elevate their existing offerings.
As it goes with most big dreams, it didn’t work out at that point, but another door opened when I was offered the Regional Manager of Recreation position at Revera. During the interview, I pitched my idea of the pre-choreographed senior fitness series once again. My interviewer loved the idea and explained that this position was all about building from the ground up. I was so excited and thought, “Yes, my idea will finally be a reality!”. The responsibilities of that position were indeed to build the program from the ground up, and although our team was doing great work, the years rolled by and I still had not been able to create the program that I continued to see was sorely needed. Finally, I decided that I would create this solution on my own time and StrongerU Senior Fitness was born.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I guess the most interesting thing so far has just been getting StrongerU off the ground. When I first decided to create StrongerU, I was spending three out of four weeks per month flying all over Canada to support my team of 49 Directors of Recreation who were spread across 5 provinces. I didn’t have a personal laptop at the time, so I created the initial course content in hotel business centers. I woke up at 5 a.m., got to work on StrongerU, then at 8 a.m., I got ready for my 9–5 (plus!) job. When I got back to my hotel at around 5 p.m., I had a quick dinner and then headed back to the business center to continue working on the course. I was able to get even more done on the weekends. I wasn’t sure what would become of creating StrongerU, but I knew that it could help a lot of people. I was having a lot of fun putting it together, so that made up for the round-the-clock hours.
At the time that the StrongerU Senior Fitness Course was almost complete, I applied for the AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge and was shocked to be selected as a finalist. A few months later, I was also selected as a finalist for the Aging2.0 Global Innovation Showcase. I started to share StrongerU with my colleagues in the senior living industry and it was getting resounding positive feedback. I couldn’t believe it! I knew that my program was a solution that senior living organizations needed, but I didn’t know if they knew they needed it. I was shocked by how receptive the world was to my idea and humbled by the positive feedback instructors started to give the course. Bringing StrongerU to the world has certainly been an adventure!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The biggest mistake I ever made was assuming that I would create StrongerU for one senior living organization. Initially, I wanted to help make one organization the premier company for older adults to thrive in retirement living, but the organization I worked for didn’t see the potential at the time.
Now, I realize I’m lucky that neither company took me up on StrongerU Senior Fitness because if they had, only the residents at one company would have benefited from the program. What seemed like rejection and disappointment at the time turned out to be a blessing because now older adults and organizations all over the world get to benefit from the program.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
North American society is aging-adverse. Aging is something we seem to want to avoid at all costs, but many of the negative consequences that we associate with aging are actually due to inactivity. At StrongerU Senior Fitness, we provide quality, safe, effective, and dynamic monthly class content. This is an essential tool for recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals who are focused on helping the seniors they serve in a way that increases their level of fitness; this is key to preventing falls and chronic disease and helping older adults live more exceptional lives.
There is a common misconception that “senior fitness” means gentle exercise and stretching, and most senior fitness classes are built around this belief. Instead, research shows that people who are 65 and older should aim to achieve 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous(not gentle!)aerobic activity per week and at least 2 days per week of muscle and bone strengthening exercises.
Even armed with this information, there seems to be a fear of hurting older adult participants by doing the wrong thing. I could see that some recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals working with seniors seem to struggle with ‘what’ to teach. At StrongerU Senior Fitness, we bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical implementation by giving instructors the ‘what’ through our monthly class content. The impact that we aim to make is to ensure more older adults are receiving a quality fitness experience that’s not just good for their body, but their brain too.
Since our population is aging, it has never been more important to help older adults age successfully. Our vision is to help millions of seniors globally to reap the benefits of physical fitness and show the world that age does not need to be synonymous with disability. There is a simple solution to helping our population age successfully, and we will partner with recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals as well as senior-serving organizations to make that solution a reality!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When StrongerU Senior Fitness became a reality in September 2019, it was after nearly a decade of unintentional research and design. I initially created the StrongerU class choreography for the amazing older adults I had the pleasure to work with over my career. There are so many success stories, but there are two that really stand out in my mind after all these years.
There was a gentleman at one of the retirement communities that I worked at. He was always so tired and spent most of his day sleeping. I had invited him to my fitness programs before, but he always turned me down saying that he was too tired. It was so sad to see him sleeping his life away as if he was just waiting to die.
Then, one day he came to see me and told me he wanted to join my fitness program. I couldn’t believe it! He started off just one day per week and then progressed to three! It was like he was a new man. He didn’t spend his day sleeping anymore. I started to see him out making friends, playing cards, and coming to our evening entertainment. He went from waiting to die to having a new lease on life. I think his story is so important because often we see a quiet, frail, exhausted man and would likely assume that he wouldn’t be able to exercise, or that it wouldn’t help improve his quality of life.
I worked with another man who was a smoker and only had one lung. He was crabby and his only social activity was going out for a smoke. He too started to see the benefits fellow residents were gaining by coming to my program and asked to join. We started slow. At the beginning he could only exercise for about 10 seconds before needing a 30–60 second break, but he stuck with it and soon saw improvements. Both of these men show that no matter how deconditioned or frail you might be, it is possible to regain strength, energy, and quality of life if you take part in the right types of physical activity.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
1.) Doctors and fitness professionals need to start working together.
We are starting to see more and more doctors who are taking an interest in the physical fitness of their patients and are prescribing exercise instead of pills. I just think of how much healthier the world would be if at every check-up, a doctor asked about their patient’s physical activity regimen and prescribed exercise just as they would prescribe vitamins or a medication to remedy some other deficiency.
I believe the root of this problem needs to be addressed in our medical schools. Doctors are taught about the body but taught very little on the true value of moving it, therefore it’s not front-of-mind when they head out into the world and begin practicing. There is so much amazing research showing the incredible impacts of fitness over traditional medicine! For example, in one of my favorite studies, half the group completed 20 minutes per day on an exercise bike and a once weekly 60-minute aerobics class while the other half received a stent. A year later, the exercising group was 88% cardiac event-free compared to only 70% of individuals who received the stent. The exercise had a bigger impact!
2.) Re-evaluate our perceptions of aging.
As I mentioned earlier, especially in North America, youth is something to be coveted and old age is something to be avoided. Aging is so often associated with chronic conditions and disability, and individuals of all age just accept that to be fact when really, these ailments are often due to inactivity.
If each of us believed that, at any age, we could use fitness to maintain or regain quality of life well into our later years, then we would see more children and grandchildren helping their elders to get active. We wouldn’t fear aging so much because we would know that we can live active healthy lives into our 90’s and even beyond! I know this first-hand from so many of the individuals who I have had the privilege to work with and who inspired the launch of the StrongerU Senior Fitness program. If the world truly knew the power of fitness and had recreation, wellness, and fitness professionals ready to help older adults make it a reality, then we would be a much healthier society.
3.) Focusing on making necessary changes to improve the senior living industry.
While I want to help the entire world to age more successfully, I’m especially focused on helping senior living organizations as they typically have the ability to enhance the lives of 100+ residents per building. I think that as the senior living industry rebuilds their reputation post-COVID, we will see a greater emphasis on improving the experience of senior living. This includes more focus on and support of the recreation and activities departments within these organizations.
In senior living, there is an epidemic of gentle exercise and stretching. Although there are some organizations that are excelling in offering quality fitness experiences for their residents, most have individuals with no senior fitness certification teaching their classes. I created StrongerU because I wanted to help organizations in providing their seniors with healthier lives, but there are also benefits that are good for them on a business level, too.
The first step is for the organization to ‘kick the tires’ on their current fitness offering. Is the person leading the fitness classes certified? Do they take part in continued education? Do they offer a program that provides residents with the ability to achieve 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous (not gentle) aerobic activity per week, and at least 2 days per week of muscle and bone strengthening exercises?
The next step is to put a dynamic program in place — either homegrown or consulting with companies like StrongerU Senior Fitness. Once a quality program is in place, fitness testing can be used to quantify the positive impact and then share it in marketing materials. For example, “New residents saw an average increase of 20% in their overall physical ability after 3 months of living at our community”. Exercisers tend to have a better quality of life and want to tell their friends, thus leading to referrals. Exercisers live longer, so that means an increased length of stay. Not having a quality senior fitness offering is a huge, missed opportunity for the residents and the organization.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, leadership means leading the way. To be a leader, you need to be willing to walk the walk. I created StrongerU because my teams and their residents were in need of the types of resources we provide. I certainly never thought that I would be an entrepreneur or start a global senior fitness movement. On the hardest days, sometimes I think, “Man, I should have just stayed with my comfy job and amazing team”, but that would have been the easy route.
Every day my goal is to empower more recreation, fitness, and wellness professionals and by doing so, helping more and more seniors to reap the benefits of our program. I also think that a leader is responsible to do right by their team, or in our case, the StrongerU instructor community. The have entrusted me to support them and the seniors they serve, and that is a responsibility I take very seriously. Everything I do, I do for them.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- It might not happen the way you expect: As I mentioned earlier, I thought I would create StrongerU for just one company. If you have an idea that will help a lot of people, I believe you have a duty to keep with it.
- It will take longer than expected: When I first launched StrongerU, I felt we were on the road to being an overnight success and being the Canadian leader in senior fitness, then the pandemic hit. The organizations I was working with had the safety of the residents to focus on and many of our community partners were forced to close temporarily. This is another example of a blessing disguised as a set-back. The pandemic has been and continues to be a horrible event in history. The population I love most has been the hardest hit, but the one silver lining I can gather is the increased importance within society and senior living organizations to help older adults be physically active. After months of isolation and the effects of being sedentary, StrongerU is even more poised to help individuals and organizations serving seniors.
- Enjoy the ride anyways: Even when your plan doesn’t go as expected or according to your timeline, be sure to enjoy the ride. You can’t help all the people who need your innovation and support if you don’t keep going, and you won’t be able to keep going without ensuring you take a moment every day to celebrate the journey and be grateful for what you are accomplishing.
- Keep your mission front of mind and ensure it guides you in all decisions: I often get the question, “What has been your biggest mistake since starting your company?”. Oddly, there really are none. There have been tons of learnings, but I believe there have not been any mistakes because I ensure that every decision is made with the seniors and recreation professionals I have been tasked to serve in mind. Let your mission guide all your decisions.
- Be sure you’re in it for the right reasons: If I were guided by obtaining money, influence, or fame, then I would have been surely doomed to fail.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I have big dreams of a global senior fitness movement but to start, I would want every single senior leader of a retirement community organization to get their current fitness offering on their radar. As I mentioned before, really ‘kick the tires’, ‘look under the hood’, and then put a plan in place to help your residents live the healthiest life possible. Create communities where residents go to thrive instead of a place to only go to when they need help.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Wow, that is a hard one! I am a big fan of quotes and have quote notifications set to come up on my phone twice a day, but I wouldn’t really say I have a favorite. The one quote I do say to myself every day is “Today will be an exceptional day.” I always start my day with this promise to myself. I believe that no matter what my schedule holds, or where my day goes, I have the power to decide that I am going to have an exceptional day. I am the creator of my own destiny.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Reading Rachel Hollis’ books, “Girl, Wash Your Face” and “Girl, Stop Apologizing” was one of the main reasons I decided to finally make StrongerU Senior Fitness a reality. For nearly a decade, StrongerU was just an idea. As the years went on and the companies I worked for didn’t see the potential, I thought I would never bring StrongerU to the world. Then I read Rachel’s books and they taught me that if I had an idea that could help so many people, then I had to be the one to make it happen even if others didn’t believe in me. While bringing StrongerU to life, Rachel’s books, Facebook lives, podcasts, and posts were there to guide me. I would love a breakfast or lunch with her to say ‘thank you’ for what she inspired and to see what wisdom she might have for me.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Yes, please like and follow us by searching for StrongerU Senior Fitness on LinkedIn and Facebook. On Twitter, we are @StrongeruF and on Instagram, we are @strongeruseniorfit. You can also visit and subscribe to our YouTube channel for tons of free education here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCcmg8jud6aIJ50zH48xulNA
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you so much!