Sonja Magee

Newman resident Sonja Magee credits the Young at Heart exercise program with keeping her fit and strong - which ultimately helped her survive a life-threatening medical crisis and speed her recovery.

A group of seniors gather three mornings a week at the McConnell Adult Education Center to take part in an hour-long exercise program.

The program, Young at Heart, is designed to maintain the heart health, strength, flexibility and balance required for seniors to maintain an active, independent lifestyle.

For retired Orestimba teacher Sonja Magee, the program may well have been a life-saver.

Magee is a regular at the program for seniors 50 and older - and she credits the workouts for keeping her in good health and strong enough to survive a sudden health crisis which nearly took her life two years ago.

Magee was shopping in Modesto on Sept. 3, 2014, when she collapsed.

She had, as it turned out, suffered an aneurysm in her stomach and was in critical condition when rushed to the hospital.

“They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, so they had to do exploratory surgery,” said Magee, who said her heart twice stopped during the course of events. “They called my son and said that if they didn’t operate I would be dead in half an hour.”

Magee later developed pneumonia, and her systems began to shut down.

Her family was told to prepare for the worst, but Magee clung to life and eventually began to recover.

In all, she spent two weeks in intensive care - a time she does not remember, spent two more weeks in the hospital and was a month in a rehab center before being released to continue her miraculous recovery.

She was, in many ways, starting over.

“I had to learn to walk again. The first time I stood up in the hospital and they told me to take a step to my right, I couldn’t do it,” Magee related.

Doctor after doctor, she said, credited her recovery to her overall good health and fitness.

“They weren’t sure if I would live or die,” said Magee. “They told me I probably would not have made it if I had not been exercising and in good shape for my age.”

Exercise has been part of her recovery.

Magee was not able to return to the Young at Heart program until March 2015. The exercise routine was difficult at first, but she persevered and regained both her strength and her workout abilities.

She is, Magee reflected, testament to the power of exercise.

“I would not be alive today if I did not exercise, and I could not get around as well as I do if I did not exercise,” she commented.

Magee’s brush with death has only heightened her appreciation for life.....a healthy, active life, specifically.

“It is not how long you live, but the quality of life. If that quality of life is such that you can’t do much but sit down, to me that is not living. You have to be able to do things,” she stated. “It makes you realize that you need to take advantage of the time you are alive.”

“You take being able to get up and down out of a chair for granted,” Magee added. “I don’t take that for granted.”

The senior exercise program, she said, helps participants stay strong and healthy enough to continue managing life’s basics.

“I wouldn’t be alive if I didn’t come to exercise.....I just wish we could get more people in the program. We are very lucky to have it,” Magee commented. “It made a difference in my life.”

The program, she added, accommodates seniors with a wide variety of abilities.

In addition to the benefits of working out, she said, those attending enjoy the social element involved.

Barbara Tosta leads the exercise class, as she has for 15 years. The program, sponsored by the Healthy Aging Association, is free but donations are accepted. Sessions are held at 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at the McConnell Center.

Magee reiterated that she would like to see participation in the program grow.

“To me,” said the 70-year-old Magee, “the important thing is that more people my age need to get out and exercise.”