You have probably heard the expression, “There’s strength in numbers.” Well, that is certainly true at a Bone Builders class. OK, so this not the original intent of the phrase but nonetheless, there are a lot of seniors getting stronger in these unique classes.

Bone Builders is an exercise program that uses light weights to increase muscle strength and bone density. It is offered free of charge to people 50 and older.

“Bone Builders is designed to prevent and reverse osteoporosis, a condition in which bone density decreases and bones become thin, brittle and are easily broken or fractured,” said Paula Burnett, RSVP program director under which Bone Builders operates. RSVP is a program of the University of Maine Center on Aging. “Bone Builders also improves balance to help protect against falls and resulting fractures while enhancing the participant’s energy level and sense of well-being.”

The program is based on research by Tufts University and has a proven success rate. The key is a commitment to attend classes twice weekly for a minimum of six months. This commitment is necessary to ensure an increase in bone density.

“Over the years, our participants have seen demonstrable improvements in their overall strength and flexibility,” said Burnett.

Judi Hilliker, Bone Builders lay leader, agrees.

“This is a well-researched program that makes a difference,” she said. “I have people in my class in their late 80s whose bone density has gone up. I have also had participants who have had hip surgery, gone through rehab and came back to be mobile again. I even have two women in their 90s.”

Sounds great but there is one problem. RSVP does not have enough volunteers to teach the classes. Known as lay leaders, these individuals are trained by a qualified health and fitness consultant and are committed to contributing to the well-being of seniors.

Six months may seem like a major commitment but it really isn’t, said Hilliker.

“People who start the program tend not to stop,” she said. “It’s ongoing and it’s fun. There is also the social aspect of the class. I enjoy getting together with these ladies. And it is good for keeping the mind sharp as well.”

Lay leaders must be at least 55 years old, have medical clearance and be willing to commit to a six-month series of classes held twice a week. The minimum qualifications include: being physically able to conduct the classes, having a pleasant, outgoing manner and neat appearance, being comfortable speaking with small- or medium-sized groups, being either knowledgeable on the topic area or having a willingness to learn, and having reliable transportation or able to coordinate with a paired volunteer for transportation.

Volunteers attend a six-hour workshop led by an experienced instructor and there are periodic retrainings. All volunteers are expected to attend at least one retraining per year.

Bone Builders lay leaders also present several diverse topic areas over the course of six months including an initial overview of what osteoporosis is and what can be changed. Other topics include osteoporosis versus arthritis, the importance of calcium and vitamin D, estrogen and hormonal replacement therapy, medical issues, such as heart, asthma, high blood pressure, and health care advocacy, good nutrition, lifestyle and environmental safety, and guidelines for exercising outside of the class.

The educational component is one of the things that Hilliker loves about being a Bone Builders lay leader.

“As a leader, you’re passing on health tips and general information that people can really use,” she said. “My advice to potential leaders, visit a class first and see what it is all about. It’s really great fun.”

For more information on the Bone Builders program, call 262-7926 or email

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. Email Higgins Taylor at For information on EAAA, call 941-2865, toll-free 800-432-7812, email or visit TTY 992-0150.