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Medicine, Humanistic Culture

Tonic for Seniors’ Body and Mind

Gym Tonic at Tzu Chi is more than just physical exercise for the seniors. Through the dedicated efforts of the staff, they have experienced great warmth and even picked up useful learning pointers about life.


Disclaimer: All activities depicted in this article were conducted in compliance with the COVID-19 rules and regulations at that given time.

Tzu Chi staff helping a senior set up the machine before his session. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Ms Iris Chua Hwee Peng is a freelance pilates instructor who conducts one-to-one personalised training for her clients on a weekly basis. Despite her involvement in pilates, she is an active participant in Gym Tonic, going for sessions twice a week at Tzu Chi Gym tonic (Khatib).

An initiative by Lien Foundation, Gym Tonic has been around since 2015 as an evidence-based, senior-friendly strength-training programme that aims to improve seniors’ functional abilities through modern software and equipment. Given that the rate of muscle mass decline increases with age, it is designed for seniors aged 55 and above, helping to build their muscles and prevent frailty. Unlike standard equipment provided by typical gyms outside, Gym Tonic utilises the hydraulic system that follows the speed of exercise. If the seniors were to slow down, it would be detected by the system and there would be weight reduction to prevent the harming of their joints.

The programme was first introduced at Tzu Chi through the Seniors Engagement & Enabling Node (SEEN) @ Nanyang in 2019. It has expanded steadily since and can be found today across three Tzu Chi establishments, namely SEEN @ Nanyang, SEEN @ Bukit Batok and Khatib.

For Ms Chua, her Gym Tonic journey with Tzu Chi began about two months ago and she has not looked back since. While some might be puzzled about the motivations of a pilates instructor in getting involved with Gym Tonic, she cited the benefits that were unique to the programme.

“Gym Tonic is slightly different from pilates. In terms of flexibility and balance, I can do my pilates, but in terms of weight resistance, it is not an easy thing to train and it requires a lot of discipline,” explained the 65-year-old recent retiree who had previously spent more than 40 years in the corporate world.

“While pilates can also train my strength, it is not the same as having different sets of equipment where each set is meant to target different parts of your body. To me, it’s a good complement to my pilates workout as it adds to the variety.”

A hive of activity at Tzu Chi Gym Tonic (Khatib) as the seniors go about their usual Gym Tonic routines. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Freelance pilates instructor Ms Iris Chua Hwee Peng always finds herself looking forward to her sessions due to its all-round benefits. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Unexpected Warmth and Care

However, more than just serving as a complement to her exercise regimen, attending Gym Tonic at Tzu Chi has allowed Ms Chua to enjoy some surprise warmth and care. At the Khatib outlet, the staff can often be seen going out of their way to care for the seniors, offering conscientious advice and guidance while they go about their Gym Tonic exercise routines. More recently in the past few months, with the improvements in the COVID-19 situation, the seniors would be served tea and snacks at a newly set up cosy corner after their sessions. This initiative has been much welcomed and appreciated, with a couple of them even left amazed by the gesture.

Said Ms Chua: “It is not required of them here and they are really going beyond their duties to share their love with us. Beyond the biscuits and drinks, it also helps us feel comfortable as it creates opportunities for mutual interaction and sharing. It’s not a big matter but it really shows that they are serving us from the heart.”

Another senior, Ms Fang Mei Chin, has been a regular at Khatib for close to two years and she echoed Ms Chua’s sentiments. During her time doing Gym Tonic with Tzu Chi, the 61-year-old was also introduced to various elements unique to Tzu Chi by the staff. These included the Jing Si Aphorisms, which are wise and inspiring sayings excerpted from Master Cheng Yen’s teachings. While she was initially slightly skeptical about the organisation’s teachings given that she was a Christian, she soon saw how they could be applicable for people from all walks of life.

“I have actually read the Jing Si Aphorisms booklet. When the staff first asked whether I would be keen to read it, it was initially out of politeness when I said I would. But after giving it a try, I actually quite like it because the teachings are applicable to people of any race or religion. I consider them words of wisdom which can help with our everyday life,” remarked Ms Fang.

The staff at Khatib would make it a point to serve a cup of piping hot tea together with some biscuits upon the completion of the seniors’ workout sessions. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Ms Fang Mei Chin (left) getting her blood pressure taken before she starts on her workout. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Upon stepping into the outlet at Khatib, one can immediately feel the sense of warmth and tranquility that has become typical of all Tzu Chi establishments. According to Khatib Gym Tonic supervisor Ms Kan Mei Leng, integrating the seniors well is a key part of Tzu Chi’s overall aims. That has also been the differentiating factor between the Gym Tonic programme at Tzu Chi as compared to other centres.

“We have incorporated our Tzu Chi humanistic culture here so that they will feel like its home. After they have finished their sessions, we will serve tea and chat with them, helping to fill their stomachs and also their hearts. Even if we are very busy, we will still try to prepare the tea as just a simple cup can help their hearts feel warmer,” she shared.

“Seniors would tell us that what we are doing here is very different from outside where they would have to leave the gym quickly after finishing. Here at Tzu Chi, they feel calm and peaceful. We hope that the seniors who come not only get to exercise but are also able to find peace in their minds.”

At the Khatib outlet, there is also a book section where the seniors can pick up useful knowledge before or after their Gym Tonic sessions. (Photo by Willy Ang)

Similarities across All Three Centres

The warmth displayed by the Tzu Chi staff has not only been restricted to the Khatib outlet as the same care is shown at the two SEENs. Simple things that might be overlooked elsewhere such as helping the seniors with disinfection routines for the machines after use have gone a long way in creating a good atmosphere. 

Shared SEEN @ Nanyang fitness associate Ms Elizabeth Tan: “The seniors have commented that our staff are friendlier as compared to other places, so they feel very happy coming here due to the relaxed environment.”

Across all three centres, the photos of seniors who have performed well over the course of each 26-session Gym Tonic programme would also be displayed prominently. Through the three categories of “Super-Loader”, “Best Improvement” and “Best Attendance”, the seniors are recognised for their efforts and commitment to the programme. It might be yet another simple gesture but the impact promises to go far beyond.

“Every quarter, we will have photos of different seniors posted up. This gives them motivation and serves as recognition for their hard work,” explained Mr Loo Jun Siang, SEEN @ Bukit Batok fitness associate.

Seniors who have successfully completed the 26-session Gym Tonic programme would also be recognised through a graduation ceremony. (Photo by Chan May Ching)

During the ceremony, there would be certificates awarded and video recollections of their journeys. (Photo by Chan May Ching)

With over 100 active seniors taking part in Gym Tonic across the three centres and more than 20 still on the waitlist, the popularity of the programme at Tzu Chi is undeniable. The thoughtful and meticulous personalised care from the staff has been a key hallmark of Gym Tonic at Tzu Chi. As a result, many seniors have found themselves thoroughly enjoying each session, with the positive benefits going beyond physical health.

Given Singapore’s ageing population, activities targeted specifically at seniors such as Gym Tonic will only continue to grow in importance. Thus, it is crucial that these programmes are not only made accessible, but also run from the heart. Boosted by the positive feedback from the seniors, Tzu Chi will seek to continue doing its best and provide more than just routine service.


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