Walk to Your Hearts Content: An Exclusive interview with SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year Finalist Jacqueline Zitelli

A woman with red hair smiles while lifting green dumbbells. She is wearing a black tank top with the words "YouFit Gyms" printed on it, proud to be part of the SilverSneakers program. The background shows stacked chairs and a rack of weighted balls against a purple wall.

By Robert Koehler

Fitness is the universal language of wellness that knows no boundaries of age, which Jacqueline Zitelli is triumphantly proving – one SilverSneakers class at a time. Jacqueline was recently named one of the SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year Finalists; a prestigious award based on her love and passion for the industry. She makes it her daily goal to make exercise fun, leaving all of her attendees wanting to come back, and become the best version of themselves. She believes that it’s never too late to embark on your own personal fitness journey and that staying active is one of the most important gifts you can give to your body.

The entire YouFit team congratulates Jackie on her incredible achievement and is extremely proud of the impact she has had on members all throughout our clubs. We recently took the time to speak with Jackie more about her award, and the incredible impact that the SilverSneakers program has had on the lives of seniors throughout the South Florida area.

Share with us a little about your background and how you got started in fitness?

Jackie: Coming from Cuba, I was a fitness instructor and a dancer. I always knew that I wanted to continue my career, so I was so happy when I found out that YouFit had SilverSneakers. I’ve always taught all the different formats…Zumba, Pilates, Body Sculpting…but the thing I most love about the SilverSneakers classes is the importance for me to be able to help the seniors. I love helping them stay strong and stay healthy, so they can better go about their daily lives. And that’s why I say this is for me, but also for them.

How do you think your time at YouFit has helped shape your career and motivated you to keep working in fitness?

Jackie: I’m so happy YouFit has the SilverSneakers program, because not all gyms have it. I definitely want the opportunity to continue with the seniors as my career progresses, so I’m so excited they have (and hopefully keep it!) YouFit provided me with this incredible opportunity, and I’m so grateful for it.

silversneakers instructor

Walk me through what a typical SilverSneakers class might look like, for those that might not be familiar with the program.

Jackie: We typically use dumbbells, medicine balls, and resistance bands – so in some classes I end up using three types of equipment. In other classes, I might use one for the entire class, or sometimes we don’t use any equipment at all. We might focus more on standing, dancing, moving, or aerobic movements. All my classes are different. That’s what people like about my classes. I try to make each one fun and unique. A lot of people come to me and say, “Oh my God! How do you come up with all these ideas?” And my response is always, “I just came up with it during class off the top of my head!” It’s always so much fun.

What is the most rewarding part about teaching SilverSneakers?

Jackie: The best part is knowing that they’re slowly getting stronger, and when they come back from the doctor with encouraging news. Me being able to help them…that’s what makes me the happiest. I love that I’m doing my job, and also making a difference in the lives of people at the same time.

How is SilverSneakers different than other class formats you teach?

Jackie: I like SilverSneakers because it helps the seniors get an extra push, and this extra encouragement to keep coming. This way, they don’t stay home and sit on the sofa getting worse. Some of them have medical issues. And as you get older, you might get more problems in your body. So by coming to class, they improve every day and say, “Oh my God, I’m getting stronger. Look at me. I can stand up!” Some of them couldn’t even stand before from a chair, and now they can do it. That’s the difference. I love all my seniors, and after just months, they form a special bond with me. Not only physically, but mentally. For some, this is all they have. We are family. They come. They like the routine we do every day. They make new friends…they socialize…they dance…we eat…and they make new friends forever. For life.

Moving onto your incredible award, what does being a SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year finalist mean to you? What does the award represent?

Jackie: Just being nominated was such an honor, because I know that hundreds of instructors nationwide get picked. I couldn’t believe it when they told me, “Oh my God, you’re in the Top Four!” One year, (I think  2019), I made it to the Top 10 and I said, “Okay, that’s it. I know. I’ve got to continue. You guys can nominate me if you want,” but this year, I finally made it. It’s such an honor. It made me so incredibly happy, and makes me continue what I love to do, and pushes me to keep doing it.

Do you think your life has changed, or attitude has changed, since you found out you won?

Jackie: It just gave me this punch. It encouraged me to continue and to get better. I display my energy each time in class because I love what I do, but I always want to get better, and am always trying to come up with better ideas. What did I miss today? What muscle did I miss? Next time we’ll work on this. Next time we’ll work on that. So in my head, I’m trying to put everything together to give a better class.

What makes your class so special? Why do you think members keep coming back each week to your class?

Jackie: I think they come because I always show up to class with positive energy and I say, “Good Morning!” with my thick Cuban accent and right there, I make them smile. I also try to make it fun…different classes…different routines…change up the music. They ask me for music from the 60s, and I say, “Okay. I’m going to make this happen for them, and throw in something new to the mix.” They always end up loving it, and always end up coming back.

Why do you think it’s so important for people of any age to get moving and stay active, especially for seniors?

Jackie: I think it has to do with your physical body. As you get older, of course, you develop more medical issues. And that’s why you need to come to class. To improve. To improve and just get your muscles working. Improve your heart, but also your mind. Like I said, we are a family. Sometimes we are all they have. At home when they’re by themselves, sometimes they might get depressed. In class, we try to make them laugh, and we make it fun for them to keep coming. It’s very important, not only for the muscles but also for their spirits and their souls.

Meet Nina, one of Jackie’s SilverSneakers Participants 

silversneakers member

Nena started coming to Silver Sneakers in a wheelchair and her doctor said she wouldn’t be able to walk again. Nena got stronger and stronger. She went from a wheelchair to a walker, to using a cane, and now she can walk on her own!

Congratulations again to Jackie on her incredible achievement, and positive energy that puts a smile on the faces of hundreds of members each year. Check out your gym’s schedule for SilverSneakers offerings, or try YouFit’s new Senior Fit-izens Walking Club to get active and get moving!

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