Niantic gym owner aims to build strength and community among the 50-plus set
Niantic ― Tom Webster was on a cross trainer ― part elliptical stepper, part recumbent bike ― during his Friday morning appointment with exercise at the new Joint Effort gym, a facility for people 50 years old and up.
The Niantic newcomer was at the gym with his wife, Stephanie, as part of their three-times-a-week training regimen. He was recovering from a stroke; she was trying to stay in shape so she could do the heavy lifting around the house and enjoy her grandchildren.
Across from him on a stationary bike, Colleen Lineburgh of Waterford cheered him on. The triple whammy of the COVID-19 pandemic, menopause and a fractured back had rendered the former gym rat sedentary until the new facility opened this spring.
“Just think, you’re rowing a boat, Tom,” she said to the seated man as the back and forth of his arms on the handles helped generate momentum where his feet met the pedals. Exercise physiologist and manager Jenny Nohara of Mystic leaned in to make sure the adjustments to the machine were working for him.
Joint Effort founder George Norden of Guilford opened the Niantic location at 170 Flanders Road in April as part of a concept that revolves around personal training in a more cost-effective group format. The 2,000-square-foot space in the Midway Plaza at 170 Flanders Road adds to sites in Guilford, Branford and Old Saybrook.
He pointed to the bikes, cross-trainers and strength training equipment spread out across the room, some in a circular formation, so that people aren’t staring at each other but can still have a conversation.
“And that’s where the community gets built,” he said. “They’re not only doing the proper movements for what they need, they’re also meeting other people who are in the same boat.”
On the strength training side of the room, clients worked their muscles using their own body weight, dumbbells and exercise bands. They stood on half-balls to improve their balance. The noise at this gym came from the buzz of conversation, not the clank of heavy weights.
About 60 of Norden’s 500 clients have signed on at the Niantic location, according to the 39-year-old entrepreneur. The chain goes back a decade, with Norden set to begin selling franchises in a few months.
“We don’t have a 22-year-old coming in who wants to train for a marathon, or somebody bodybuilding,” Norden said. A majority of the clients are between 65 and 80.
He described coming up with his business plan while working in cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at the Hospital of Saint Raphael in New Haven. There, he watched heart and lung patients come out of physical therapy feeling better and more confident.
“We would say ‘you have to keep exercising,’” he recalled. “And they would say ‘where?’”
Traditional fitness centers were too big and offered little supervision, while one-on-one personal training sessions can range from $400 to $1,000 a month, according to Norden.
“So this kind of meets in the middle of both of those,” he said. Prices range from $12 to $20 per session based on frequency.
Lineburgh, the self-described gym rat, said she maintains her membership at one of the traditional gyms in the area but limits herself to the run-of-the-mill cardio equipment there. She does all her strength training at Joint Effort because she knows the trainers will correct their technique and modify exercises when needed.
“They’re always looking,” she said. “When you hear them call your name, you know you need some readjustment.”
Nohara, the exercise physiologist, is one of two professionals at the Niantic location who create personalized programs for each member based on their unique needs and capabilities. She sets cardio equipment to their specifications so it’s ready for them; she steps in on the weight training side when she sees improper form or intensity.
Nohara has an undergraduate degree in exercise science from Keene State College in New Hampshire and a master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of Rhode Island.
She assesses clients’ progress every 90 days so she can change up the exercise routine with new movements that meet them where they’re at now, rather than where they were three months ago.
“It’s always nice to see their wins, big or small,” she said.
Stephanie Webster, 79, said she came to the gym with her husband after seeing a presentation Norden gave at the East Lyme Community Center.
No stranger to exercise, she said she’d been going to a gym in Arizona for about 12 years before the couple moved to Niantic. But it was impersonal and most of the people there were younger than she was.
“And you didn't get the individual attention, nor did you know if you were doing something right or wrong,” she said.
Joint Effort’s Niantic facility is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Norden said he is looking into extending the hours past 5 p.m. for the three-day sessions to accommodate those looking for evening appointments.
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