W hen Richard Howell first walks on stage, the Winnipeg actor admits he gets nervous.
"I study my first lines so that I can step on stage," he said. "Once I get the first line out, everything relaxes and I just chug along."
Three times a week, Howell has a different audience, but he's a lot less nervous.
Howell volunteers with the SMART program, which stands for Seniors Maintaining Active Roles Together. It encourages people over the age of 55 to stay healthy and active.
"We have two requirements. One, you must have a heartbeat. Two, you must keep breathing," he said.
Each week, Howell teaches classes in both Transcona and the North End.
"We're not here to create Olympic athletes. We don't believe in 'no pain no gain,' " he said. "We're here to improve your health. If you don't use it, you lose it."
The SMART program was founded in 2000 by the Victoria Order of Nurses, a non-profit organization that addresses community health.
Today, there are 13 SMART programs across Winnipeg and more than 200 participants.
"Our mandate is to help older adults who are intimidated by a weight-room setting," said Raul Paragas, SMART program co-ordinator. "We focus on exercise and try to help them get out and socialize."
Ten years ago, Howell was encouraged to lead SMART classes by one of his trainers at the Wellness Institute at the Seven Oaks General Hospital.
"I said 'Sure, why not?' If I agree to be a leader then I will always be there. It's too easy to wimp out," said the 71-year-old.
"I can't say I'm too tired or it's too cold out to do that. I know I have a group of people waiting for me."
Howell continues to teach fitness classes to retired seniors.
"He's dedicated and really good with people," said Paragas. "I know that I can count on him, and he's always in communication with the participants."
Howell communicates in his classes by teaching new exercises and techniques to help his participants stay in shape.
"After you retire, you should always think about what you're going to do next. I wanted to keep myself healthy," said the retired architect.
In each one-hour class, Howell also leads cardio and stretching exercises. From time to time, he will also spice things up with salsa and ballroom dancing.
"When I first started, we were exercising with music tapes. Of course, now I use CDs," he said.
"I like exercising to Rod Stewart and Diana Krall."
Howell started exercising as a way to ease the arthritis in his hands and knees. As a leader of the SMART program, he wants others to do the same.
"Arthritis is like a shooting pain or a toothache," said Howell.
"You'll go to climb stairs or something like that, and all of a sudden your knee isn't going to support you because of the pain."
Howell takes an arthritis pill with his bran muffin and fruit yogurt every morning. But he said the best kind of medicine are the SMART classes.
With the help of the SMART program, Howell can walk up the stairs without his knees giving out. But he still has trouble with his hands.
"I have to accept that I'm not 16 or 20 or even 30. For some people, that's hard. I have a positive attitude," he said, exercising his fingers by bending them up and down. "You go from where you are and do the best you can."
But his favourite part about SMART is helping to make a difference in people's lives.
"I had one person who initially started coming with a walker and now he's at the point where he uses just one cane, and he's 80 years old," he said. "We get the muscles going."
For each class, Howell brings a shirt and a pair of running shoes. But most importantly, he brings his positive attitude.
"Everybody's always having a good time and that's the main thing," he said.
"You want them to have fun so they keep coming out."
If you know a special volunteer please contact Elizabeth Fraser at: firstname.lastname@example.org.