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Lucky woman

Healthy Living Award winner Bonnie Hopps has spent a lifetime helping others keep arthritis in check

Bonnie Hopps
Bonnie Hopps

BY BOB ARMSTRONG
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, May / June 2012

Bonnie Hopps stands tall, feet apart, shoulders relaxed.

As her mind begins to clear, she takes a deep breath and raises both arms directly in front of her to shoulder height. After holding for a second, she exhales and lets her arms drop.

Next, she raises her arms again, this time with palms turned inward toward her chest, and tucks in her chin to align with her spine. Then she turns her palms outward, and lowers her arms.

With that, she completes the first in a series of exercises known as Tai Chi, an ancient Chinese practice that that blends free-flowing movement, breathing and meditation.

Hopps practices a variation of Tai Chi developed specifically for people with arthritis one a day, and she says it is extremely beneficial.

"It's good for function because it allows you to do range of motion with your limbs and supplies you with a strengthening exercise," she says. "Your arms aren't up in the air for a long time, but you definitely have to have muscle strength to hold them up there."

And Hopps should know.

The life-long fitness advocate has spent more than 35 years helping people with arthritis and other chronic conditions as a fitness leader and educator. For the last 11 years, she has been an arthritis educator for the Arthritis Society, leading workshops for health professionals, training fitness leaders and helping people gain a better understanding of a condition that affects an estimated 4.6 million Canadians.

In recognition of her work, Hopps recently received a Healthy Living Award from the Reh Fit Centre Foundation. The awards are presented each year to celebrate organizations and individuals who have made a contribution to promoting healthy living in the community, says Sue Boreskie, Chief Executive Officer of the Reh-Fit Centre. Since 1999, almost 200 Manitobans or Manitoba organizations have been recognized for promoting community health by encouraging active living.

Hopps, meanwhile, says she is just fortunate to have been able to help others.

"I'm one of the really lucky people because I really enjoy what I do," she says.

For people with arthritis, exercise can help reduce pain and stiffness, maintain or increase muscle strength, improve balance and co-ordination and recover range of motion.

The Arthritis Society has a number of programs aimed at helping people with arthritis and other chronic conditions through exercise. People recovering from injuries such as motor vehicle accidents or head trauma, or living with conditions such as multiple sclerosis or post-polio syndrome also benefit from the Arthritis Society's modified exercise programs.

In her role as an arthritis educator, Hopps teaches fitness leaders how to offer the society's Tai Chi for Arthritis and PACE (People with Arthritis Can Exercise) classes. She also gets into the water herself to lead groups in the Arthritis Aquatic Exercise Program as well as a program developed by Jun Kono from Japan called Ai Chi. It involves slow broad movements in warm water, which supports the body.

She has taken her fitness expertise throughout Manitoba, training fitness leaders in a variety of rural and northern communities. She remembers one Tai Chi class at northern First Nations community where participants found the peaceful movements, set to the music of Aboriginal drumming, a very spiritual experience.

Working as an arthritis educator also involves explaining the difference between the two most common forms of the disease: osteoarthritis, which deteriorates the cartilage at the ends of bones, and rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disorder that targets the tissue lining joints. More than 100 different conditions, from lupus, to fibromyalgia, to gout are also forms of arthritis.

Hopps also reminds those who don't have arthritis that the condition is often an "invisible" illness. "You might see a woman and think 'she looks very nice.' But people don't realize it took her two hours to get out of bed because she was so stiff and an hour to do her hair because it hurts to lift her hands over her head. She doesn't look like she has an illness."

Taking part in annual workshops held by the International Aquatic Therapy and Rehabilitation Institute since the late 1980s has also kept her up to date on research and the latest improvements in fitness programming. She then passes what she's learned to physicians and nurses as well as physiotherapists, occupational therapists and health-care aides.

Hopps notes that when she was a youth she wanted to be a nurse, and now she helps nurses and others work with patients. While she hasn't been a full-time fitness leader for years, she still spends three hours a week in the Misericordia Health Centre pool leading classes in the water.

Exercising in the water is particularly helpful for people with arthritis, notes Hopps. Because the body's weight is largely supported, people who have trouble moving joints at all on dry land can move their arms and legs with a wide range of motion.

The improvements can be dramatic. She cites examples of people with arthritis and post-polio syndrome who have used specialized stair climbers designed for the swimming pool. "We went from doing five steps to doing 350 steps at a time," she says.

As people regain movement, their pain decreases and their mobility increases, she says. And often their social life improves, too. "We've had people start in our classes while using a wheelchair and by the end of the class they go from using a chair, to a walker, to a cane . . . You see the difference in their quality of life."

Her understanding of the subject doesn't just come from taking workshops and teaching fitness classes. Hopps was diagnosed with arthritis in the late 1970s. "I kept thinking, 'I've always got a backache,'" she recalls. "I was told 'You've got arthritis. You've got degeneration in your back and neck.'"

Despite that diagnosis, she has remained active. And part of that activity has been to raise funds to improve treatment of the disease. Over the years she has taken part in five Joints in Motion trips - in which volunteers raise funds and then take part in marathons or half-marathons in various locations. "I'm slowing down now. The arthritis is getting worse. I used to walk the half marathon, but now I walk the 10K."

Hopps came to the fitness community through being a swimming instructor at the Pan Am Pool and later at the Winnipeg Winter Club. That experience led to teaching aquasize classes and from there she began leading, and developing, classes geared for people with chronic illnesses or other physical challenges.

While working at the Misericordia Health Centre, she encountered a participant in one of her classes who urged her to get involved in developing a fitness class especially for women recovering from breast cancer. That was the first of many programs she was involved in that focused on special needs. "I realized I loved working with anybody who has any kind of problem at all."

Water hasn't just been a continuous feature of her work life. It's also been a constant in her family's recreational time. "In 1974 we had a family meeting when our children were four and seven years old. I said we had enough money to buy a pool but not to buy a pool and dig the hole for it. So we dug the hole ourselves."

That backyard pool became a centre of family activities and with a heater installed would be in use from April to November. Not surprisingly, her other hobbies involve water: snorkelling, parasailing, fishing, and scuba diving, something she's enjoyed for the last three years in the beautiful waters of the Turks and Caicos Islands.

There's a logical progression from having fun in the ocean to helping others get fit and have fun in the Misericordia Health Centre pool. "It's (the exercise class) almost a social club. The socialization is important because people with arthritis tend to become very isolated and there's a problem with depression."

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer.

Wave: May / June 2012

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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