Sue Sgambato

Sue Sgambato

You would need to wake up pretty early in the morning to get moving faster than Sue Sgambato. The dedicated fitness proponent and teacher rises with her husband, Stephen, at 4 a.m. each morning, and they are out walking by 6. The rest of the day is just as busy.

At age 63, Sue teaches nine classes per week, involving movement and coping with the effects of aging. Prior to the advent of COVID-19, she taught 15 classes per week.

She gets around, as she spreads her message of how important it is to keep moving. She lives in Burrillville, where she once led classes at the community center, and her work has taken her to the Smithfield Senior Center, and Hopedale and Blackstone, Mass., in the past. Currently she leads classes at the Lincoln and North Providence senior centers.

It all began when she served as the program coordinator at the Woonsocket Senior Center. In 2006, she decided to learn about leading sessions of exercise and movement for those who suffer from arthritis and similar motion restricting ailments.

She contacted the Arthritis Foundation and signed up for training. Eventually she attained 13 certifications, including Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program Leader, four Zumba specialties, and a National Academy of Sports Medicine Senior Fitness Specialist designation. Among all her other qualifications, she is also certified as an instructor of a program called Brains and Balance Past 60.

Her impulse to help others began early. Her college degree from the State University of New York in Brockport is in social work and sociology. She is also a person of faith.

“I’m a Christian woman, and I believe every day is a gift from God. I wake up every day and say to myself ‘Let’s not waste days holding grudges.’ I ask every day, ‘Why am I still here?’ I want to make sure I’m doing all that I can.”

Her perspective is reinforced by the fact that she is a two-time cancer survivor, the first personal awareness of which manifested itself at age 36 when she was diagnosed with a hereditary gene for the disease.

Sue offers insight to the role she plays in teaching people how to stay active and be able to function in their daily lives.

“They ask me ‘Why would I want to move more? I already hurt.’ It doesn’t have to be like that, I tell them. I try to teach them the importance of (staying active).”

Seeing her teach is to witness how she motivates and inspires her classes. Every instructor brings their own style and methods to the practice of their skills. Hers are a joyful, encouraging blend of personal observation, quick anecdotal asides, playful joshing, and subtle challenges, interspersed with empathy, song, and periodic assurances that it’s OK to skip something if it hurts to do it.

She rarely stops moving herself, continuing her demonstrations of the moves even while telling her class family stories or answering questions.

Later she tells me that there are some 120 different exercises in the Arthritis Foundation handbook. Essentially, they address just about every muscle group in the body. At every class, Sue leads her participants in, perhaps, a couple of dozen of them, with five to 10 repetitions of each routine.

“I want it to be motivating. I want it to be fun,” she observes. “We all want to be able to do what we need to do. The whole idea is to teach the value of exercise late in life.”

One of her techniques is to make her instruction relevant and relatable by connecting it to the needs and activities of everyday life.

On a recent Thursday with snow in the forecast, she tells her class what parts of the body will be impacted by shoveling and even adapts one of the exercises slightly to replicate the act of using a shovel. Class members spontaneously reply to her prompts with questions or reactions to the effects of the particular stretch Sue requests. Somehow, she seamlessly replies and usually generates laughter and assent from the group without missing a beat in her routine.

“I know I’m doing good work. I can see it in their faces,” she comments, adding how much she enjoys her job. “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” she says.

There is always a purposeful undertone to her reflection, though. Having a personal relationship with the specter of cancer, she can be zealous (but not overbearing) in her advocacy of healthy life choices. A substantial portion of cancer cases are directly attributable to lifestyle, she points out.

“Genetics may load the gun, but lifestyle pulls the trigger,” she declares. “You can make changes at any age that will make a difference you can feel.”

Her message must be working. On most class days the people who attend fill one of the largest gathering spaces at the Lincoln Senior Center. Many of the individual exercises are done sitting down, and frequently there are only one or two free chairs.

“I’m comfortable in front of an audience,” Sue confides, explaining that she began performing in musicals at Alfred University in upstate New York when she was 10, and she sings in church.

Of her work, she notes, “I want it to be motivating. I want it to be fun. Everything is preparation for the next thing. To make it fun, exciting, motivating ... that’s my job.”

Full disclosure: Being subject to the effects of arthritis, the writer has partaken of Mrs. Sgambato’s classes.

Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.

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