Exercise is the best medicine

Special Report Siel Bleu, a social enterprise programme that helps the elderly maintain their level of fitness, has arrived in Ireland


The role of physical exercise in preventing chronic illness, maintaining physical mobility and contributing to wellbeing is now well recognised. However, getting yourself along to an exercise class that suits your specific needs as you get older isn’t always easy.

Siel Bleu is a social enterprise which offers tailor-made affordable exercise classes to older people in nursing homes and community settings. It started in France 15 years ago and such was its success that it quickly expanded around France and also developed in Spain and Belgium.

Last year, Siel Bleu came to Ireland and immediately began working with three nursing homes on pilot programmes. Now, one year later, Siel Bleu instructors offer adapted physical activity classes to older people in 30 nursing home and daycare centres throughout Ireland.

“The key to the success of the programme is that we look at the abilities of the participants and find out what areas they want to improve that will make their everyday life easier,” says Fiona Foley, CEO of Siel Bleu in Ireland. “The goal is that people stay as independent as they can for as long as possible or if they have been ill, that they regain part of their independence again through the exercises.”

The Siel Bleu instructors are all trained in either sports medicine/psychology or physiotherapy. Many of the exercises are chair-based. The instructors are also trained to run Alzheimer gymnastics, a physical activity programme which uses colour, touch and mirroring rather than detailed verbal instructions for people with dementia. “There are physical, cognitive and social benefits for those who attend the classes,” says Foley.

Living well
A three-year partnership with Nutricia Medical has given Siel Bleu the opportunity to roll out the programme throughout Ireland. “Together, we promote the message: moving well plus eating well equals ageing well,” she explains.

Brian Pollard believes that his weekly Siel Bleu exercise class in South Dublin is one way of “holding back the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease”. “We do sitting and standing exercises and play football and basketball with soft balls,” he explains. When he started the classes, all the participants had Parkinson’s. Now, a few people with arthritis have joined the classes.

“The trainer is good at watching us all individually and encouraging us along while not pushing us beyond our limits,” says Pollard. He first heard of the class from Move4Parkinsons, one of the partner organisations that work with Siel Bleu to offer classes to specific groups of people. Arthritis Ireland and Living Well with Dementia, a HSE programme in Stillorgan, Dublin are other organisations which design exercise classes with Siel Bleu specifically to suit their members.

Offering classes in partnership with community centres is another aspect of Siel Bleu’s approach. Aideen D’Arcy organizes exercise classes for people in Loughlinstown Parish, Dublin in collaboration with Siel Bleu. “I have been very impressed with Siel Bleu. The instructors are well qualified. We wanted low cost drop-in classes for parishioners over 50. Not everyone can afford to go to the gym. The classes cost €4 per person and we subsidise that so each person only pays €2 per class,” About 30 people attend one of the three classes held on Mondays in Loughlinstown Parish Centre. “The classes are very sociable as well as keeping people mobile,” adds D’Arcy.

Mental health therapy
Sharon McCaffrey is a senior occupational therapy at Bloomfield Health Services in Rathfarnham, Dublin. “Siel Bleu offers one to one lessons for falls prevention here and also group sessions for younger residents in Bloomfield psychiatric hospital,” she explains.

“The links between physical activity and positive mental health is growing,” says McCaffrey who works closely with the Siel Bleu instructors in the design of the exercise programmes. “We find that it engages the residents – the young men in particular – improves their physical health and mood and reduces their challenging behaviour.”

Siel Bleu is also carrying out research into their physical activity programmes. “One project involves GPs in Limerick referring patients for a 12 week Siel Bleu exercise programme. These participants’ physical capabilities, needs and goals will be assessed as well as undergoing specific health screenings at the University of Limerick,” explains Foley. Another study is the European Commission backed “HAPPIER”, which examines the efficacy of Siel Bleu Adapted Physical Activity Programmes on residents’ and staff’s quality of life in nursing homes in Ireland, Spain, Belgium and France.

Fiona Foley adds, “As social entrepreneurs we want to see adapted physical activities become an integral part of preventative and curative care in Ireland. Currently 1,000 adults experience the many physical, mental and social health benefits of our programmes and in three years time we aim to enable more than 5,000 participants to partake in and enjoy our physical activities.

“We believe that through our strong partnerships, such as with Nutricia Medical and many organisations working with and for vulnerable or older adults we can make a measurable and lasting difference to society.”