The American Senior Fitness Association presents Experience!

October 18, 2007              

Table of Contents
  • Sign Language as Part of a Senior Exercise Program (Introduction to special issue)
  • Some Background on Signing (A cognitive and physical activity)
  • Get Ready (Preparing to incorporate sign language into fitness class)
  • Teach! (How to instruct simple sign language techniques)
  • Additional Considerations (Arthritis and more)
  • Where to Go from Here (Resources)
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Sign Language as Part of a Senior Exercise Program

Our last issue
celebrated two-plus years of publishing Experience! by profiling several exciting senior fitness programs led by creative SFA members past and present. Since the line-up of fitness professionals recognized in that issue was all male, we promised to also share some programming gems from past and present SFA women (to be presented in this and two upcoming issues). Today's feature is a fascinating article written by SFA-certified long term care fitness leader Joanne E. Insull, M.S., and reprinted by permission of the Senior Fitness Bulletin. Although geared toward professionals, it makes an interesting read for laypersons as well.


Some Background on Signing

Sign language is a method of communication
used by people in the deaf community. It consists of two main tools of communication: first, the manual alphabet, consisting of 26 signs corresponding to the letters of the alphabet; and second, signs which represent a whole word or idea. The letters and word signs are formed by using the hands and arms. Appropriate facial expressions are also used to convey emphasis and emotion when signing.

Sign language is a distinct language with specific sentence structure and vocabulary. Learning to sign fluently takes as much effort as learning any other language. The effort is both cognitive (learning and remembering the signs) and physical (actually performing the signs). Because of the dual effort (both cognitive and physical), basic sign language can be an excellent tool for use in any level of senior fitness classes. It exercises the mind as well as the hands and arms. In addition, it exposes seniors to the deaf culture. Most find it an interesting and pleasurable experience.

It should be emphasized that fluency in sign language is attained by intense study and practice with properly trained, fluent sign language instructors. However, since the goal of using this technique in the senior fitness class is exercise and cognitive challenge rather than fluency, teaching the manual alphabet and signs for frequently used words and phrases is entirely possible if the fitness instructor does some preparation.

American Manual Alphabet

Get Ready

Prepare yourself to teach basic signs.
Preparation involves finding and reading simple manuals on sign language. These are usually available in your local public library or a comprehensive bookstore, as are video tapes or DVDs specifically developed to teach sign language. Computer software is also a convenient way to learn.

Fitness Participants signs "cookies"After reviewing the materials, it is important to practice the alphabet and signs that you plan to use. It is helpful to find another person to practice with in order to feel comfortable and perform the signs smoothly. Always say the letter or word as you are signing it.

If you know someone who uses sign language, don't be afraid to ask for help. Speech pathologists, interpreters, and people in the deaf community are good resources to use. Check your local television listings. Occasionally, sign language will be offered as a course on educational television. Some children's shows may feature it to expose children to the different ways that people communicate.

Seek out an event that is interpreted for deaf/hearing impaired persons and observe the interpreter. Notice that facial expression is a large part of communicating through sign language.

Prepare the seniors you serve for the experience of learning sign language. Explain that they will be exercising their hands, arms, and brains all at the same time. Some may know a person who uses sign language and may share a story about that person. For others, there may be a hesitation or discomfort when talking about disabilities. This may be due to lack of exposure to persons with disabilities. Until about 1970, most people with disabilities were institutionalized. Therefore, talking about people who are "different" may be difficult for some older persons. This presents a good opportunity to discuss communication in general. It may be productive to focus on the ways we all use our hands to convey a message to someone when we don't want to be overheard. For example, how do you tell a companion that you want to leave a blah party?



Plan to start your instruction
with the manual alphabet. This provides maximum exercise for the hands and fingers. Once letters are learned, the participants can use letters to spell simple words. In addition, hand positions for many signs for words are described in terms of a letter sign. For example, the sign for "cookie" is made by making the sign for "c" with the right hand and placing it in the left palm to resemble a cookie cutter cutting dough. So knowing the sign for "c" is helpful when learning to make the sign for "cookie."

It is important to provide each participant with a copy of the manual alphabet for his or her own use when not in class. Many do like to practice on their own. However, it is necessary to be sensitive to those with vision problems. For these exercisers, enlargements of the alphabet signs can be made on a copying machine. In addition, describe the hand and finger positions verbally as you demonstrate them to the class. Some participants may need to be positioned directly in front of you or you may need to circulate among the participants so that they can see your hands.

It is best to teach only about three letters at a time and review the letters already taught at each session. Participants can use the letters to spell simple words of three or four letters each. Adding one or two word signs at each session keeps participants from growing weary of learning the alphabet letters. Words are best remembered as part of a related group. For example, a good series of words might be drink, milk, and coffee; another might be shirt, shoes, and socks. Other groups of words can revolve around holidays, for example: Happy Thanksgiving, turkey, and potatoes.

Include some signs that they may be able to use when sitting across the room from each other, for example: boring, or the sign for bathroom if they need to discreetly notify someone that they are leaving the room. As they learn some words, the participants will become motivated to learn even more. They can also begin to construct simple two or three word sentences. It is a good idea to carry a small sign language dictionary to look up words to teach on the spot while their motivation is high.

Fitness clients demonstrate alphabet signsAs the word signs are taught, the participants will begin to catch on to the origins of specific signs. We use many signs each day that we might never connect to the signs used by persons who are deaf or hearing impaired, but in fact they are often the same signs. Much cognitive exercise can be performed if participants are asked to guess at the formation of a sign before it is taught, for example: "What do you think the sign for eat might look like?" Another cognitive exercise can be performed by asking the participants if they can guess the origin of a particular sign, for example: "How do you suppose they decided on this sign (demonstrate sign) for home?"


Additional Considerations

Sign language
involves using a variety of finger and hand positions which encourage full range of motion in the finger joints, wrists, and elbows. Since many seniors have arthritis, they may find the movements difficult. Caution them to move slowly and to stop if the exercise becomes painful. Limiting the time spent on sign language to five or ten minutes at the end of a regular class results in reasonable effort by most participants.

Proper form for sign language consists of holding the hands in front of the chest while making signs so that the person reading them will be able to see them clearly and also see the signer's facial expressions. Holding the arms at this height may be difficult for some participants. In those cases, using chairs with armrests may provide the participants with some support for their arms as they make the signs. It is also important to perform some arm, shoulder, and hand stretches at the end of the session.

As suggested above, performing from five to ten minutes of signing per exercise session can provide cognitive and physical benefits without posing the risks associated with overuse. It should be noted that carpal tunnel syndrome is an occupational hazard for sign language interpreters. The repetitive movements performed by these professionals can produce the painful condition. Consequently, it is not advisable to use sign language as a physical exercise for any participant in class who has carpal tunnel syndrome. However, he or she can be included in the cognitive activities and may find them very enjoyable!


Where to Go from Here

If you would like to include sign language
as part of your exercise program, explore the following resources:

Additional online resources

  • ASL Pro is a free ASL educational resource website featuring over 11000 ASL Signs
  • Color of Language develops educational materials for Deaf children and their families. The organization has also posted numerous free and informative video demonstrations on the internet..
  • Gallaudet University Press offers a wide variety American Sign Language resources.
  • Lifeprint includes free sign language lesson plans, ASL dictionary and resources. Information on Deaf culture, history, grammar, and terminology.
  • Michigan State University's American Sign Language (ASL) browser includes video of thousands of ASL signs and interesting information about them

Experience! readers:
Thank you for your interest and questions. Due to the high volume of contacts SFA receives, we cannot respond to individual queries or comments. However, the newsletter does address frequently asked questions and topics of vital interest to our members.

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