Body-brain harmony: Functional Mind and Body blends exercise with cognitive training

Family-owned fitness program designed to strengthen the physical and cognitive health of the aging population
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Fitness is encoded in the Francis family DNA. 

Sisters Shekia and Meeka grew up hearing stories of their father’s, Terrence, professional boxing career, instilling in them the value of physical exercise and healthy habits. Likewise, their mother, Jacqueline, a registered nurse, imparted to the Francis sisters the importance of looking after their physical health and led her family by example. 

Years later, once Shekia and Meeka finished their studies, all four members of the Francis family united their strengths to found Functional Mind and Body (FMB), a hybrid fitness program that trains the body as well as the brain through cognitive stimulation therapy (CST). To combine their talents and passions into a capstone project seemed only the most natural progression for the family.

“We realized that our family really was a powerhouse in terms of health and fitness,” said Shekia in an INNterview. Owner of FMB, the older Francis sister is an accredited wellness extraordinaire: a CST coach, personal trainer, registered kinesiologist, and cardiology technologist, among many other credentials.

 The Francis family of Functional Mind and Body, from left: Terrence, Shekia, Meeka, Jacqueline (PHOTO: Functional Mind and Body)

“Maintain independence as you age.”

FMB is unlike any other conventional fitness program in its methodology and target market: their program is specially designed for the aging population, aged 50 and above, affectionately named “Reformers.” Joined by Shekia, Terrence dispenses professional-boxing expertise to a mixed-age group of “Warriors.”

Terrence, former professional boxer, teaches boxing fundamentals during “Warrior” sessions (VIDEO: Functional Mind and Body)

Lessons for Reformers and Warriors accommodate the physical capabilities and health concerns of older clients. This means, according to Shekia, low-impact exercises that still raise the heart rate as well as highly descriptive instructions to guide motions and ensure proper form.

The Francis family said that the aging population is oftentimes loath to participate in fitness classes spearheaded by a trainer visibly much younger than they are. At FMB, clients feel more included and welcome when they see an instructor who belongs to the same age range as them, making them more inclined to participate.

Shekia and Jacqueline closing a virtual session with dead bug bent knee heel taps (PHOTO: @functionalmindandbody on Instagram)

Moreover, the brain games included in FMB’s programs are intended to prevent the cognitive decay induced by aging and lead to conditions like dementia.

“The two things people never want to do on their own is fitness and taking care of their brains,” said the older Francis sister. “So we said, ‘Why not make something available for everyone that can be fun and keep those two aspects of their health in check as they get older?’”

Shekia, who holds a neuroscience certification from Harvard University, argues that brain training is crucial now more than ever, citing her clients who have experienced severe “brain fog” since the pandemic. 

According to the CST specialist, protracted periods of social isolation means people are no longer forced to exert their brains to the same magnitude as they would in communal settings, such as the workplace or family gatherings. “Sometimes we forget how much that social aspect really challenges the brain,” she said.

Shekia also notes that as people age, they tend to fetter themselves into a routine of activities that they enjoy but not necessarily ones that challenge them, namely in the five domains of thinking: language, computation, spatial orientation, memory, and critical thinking. 

During her Brain and Body session, Shekia capitalizes on the heightened physical exertion during exercise to insert brain training between sets. She said that the body releases growth hormones while exercising, which helps fortify and retain neurological connections formed through simultaneous brain games and teasers.

“When you’re panting for air or catching your breath during exercise, you tend to walk around the room and wander your eyes,” she said. “It’s the perfect time to challenge your brain.”

Rediscover playtime

Meeka, a recreational therapist who also majored in Disability Studies and Psychology at Western University, echoes the sentiment that brain activity is vital during the lockdown, adding that — understandably so — laughter and play are the missing pieces in the daily routines of many older adults who are confined indoors.

With a buoyant demeanour that is highly contagious, Meeka hosts family game sessions online to reintroduce the element of play into her clients’ lives. “When you’re playing games, you see a different side of people,” she said.

Meeka plays classic TV game shows like Jeopardy, Family Feud, and Name That Tune with FMB clients (PHOTO: Functional Mind and Body)

While play may seem intuitive, Meeka notes that it is a skill that has been extinguished in older generations, and part of her job is reigniting that childhood impulse of tomfoolery and horseplay.

“Sometimes I’m teaching the older generation how to play,” she said, “A lot of 80-year-old men never had the opportunity to play: they were never able to horse around or anything like that.”

“Come play with me!” Meeka hosts FMB’s 45-minute Online Family Game sessions (PHOTO: Functional Mind and Body)

Meeka believes that the social and emotional bonds cultivated through play are especially important for the aging population during a time of psychological distress. A proponent of intergenerational programming, she said that older clients particularly appreciate game nights that involve younger people, especially after months of separation from family.

She said while many clients felt alienated from loved ones, they gained reprieve as well as catharsis from their 45-minute sessions of playful abandon. Meeka also revealed that participants who were stiff and taciturn at the start of the session often become boisterous and competitive by the end.

“When they’re screaming because they won a game or pouting because they lost, you see a whole other side of a person you see when they’re at a doctor’s office or when they’re eating a meal.”

“Personalization of your health.”

FMB recognizes that fitness regimens are rarely one-size-fits-all, and so customization is the mainstay of their business philosophy. Meeka, who also works with seniors at a retirement residence, said that one of the greatest merits of operating as an independent business is the freedom to modify each session to fit an individual client — a liberty that trainers rarely have at big-box gyms.

“When you work with corporations, you don’t get the choice to spend as much time as you want or do exactly what the clients want,” said Meeka, who insists that the ability to personalize each session is paramount to her work as a trainer and to the clients’ experience. 

“For me, it’s all about choosing your level of participation,” she said. “We have a very welcoming atmosphere where you can just come and watch for the first night and then participate.”

“So grateful that I get to work with my favourite people,” Meeka said about operating FMB with her family (PHOTO: @meekzspeakz on Instagram)

Both Francis sisters agree that the virtual training format has facilitated an individualized experience for FMB clients: for example, those who are camera shy can keep their webcam off while still participating in the workout, and those who are unable to participate at the scheduled time can watch the recorded session later. 

“It’s a personalization of your own health,” Meeka described it.

While virtual training does pose a technological barrier for certain clients, the FMB team has found solutions by patiently guiding their clients through the unfamiliar platform step-by-step. 

Shekia added that while brain training is a rare and coveted service, the online platform enables them to increase their impact to reach international clients and help people at a larger capacity. When FMB operated out of their clinic in Ajax pre-pandemic, Shekia’s work entailed travelling from one home to another whereas now she toggles from one window to another for the next appointment.

“There are a lot of people who are doing brain activities for preventative health,” she said. “It’s made us come out of our comfort zone to make group sessions so that we can help people at a bigger scale.” 

 The future of FMB

Shekia and Meeka are both optimistic about FMB’s future. They are looking to launch a mobile format for their lessons where clients can engage in pre-recorded sessions at their convenience.

FMB will also introduce a “Visionaries” category for those aged 25 to 50, to help the younger generation recalibrate their fitness attitude. Shekia observed that fitness is typically promoted as a vehicle for vanity to her fellow 20-somethings, while the physical and long-term health benefits are subordinated.

“We’re trying to put into everybody’s mind how to take care of your brain health and physical health to last them,” she said. “So it’ll be a lot easier to continue that progression when they’re in their 50s onward.”

 FMB has big projects to look forward to in 2021, with plans to expand to a physical location and develop a mobile program (PHOTO: Functional Mind and Body)

Shekia said that with the convenience of technology, young people do not employ their brain as much as our parents’ generation used to. “People in ages as low as their 30s are starting to notice dementia.” 

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of young-onset dementia and affects 1 in 3 young people. Even more common in the younger demographic is atypical Alzheimer’s disease, as 1 in 3 people with the condition has the atypical form.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease, the team is looking to acquire a studio space in a neighbourhood with a high concentration of the aging population to provide a fitness facility that prioritizes a forgotten generation.

In the meantime, both FMB trainers and their clients are relishing in the company of their newfound online family. 

“Just to have a place to be, a place to belong is doing a lot for our community,” said Meeka.

Wiki Production Code: A0440

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