Local fitness instructor Donna Culley is a bit of a SilverSneakers star.

SilverSneakers, a national exercise program for seniors, selected Culley as one of five finalists for its Instructor of the Year award in 2017. While she was not chosen for the top honor, Culley was lauded for making members feel respected and valued at YouFit in Midlothian.

Other honorees were from California, Tennessee, North Carolina and Indiana.

“Culley inspires each member to be their best self and makes them feel like individuals even in a group setting,” SilverSneakers officials said in their write-up about the honored instructors. “She works closely with them to understand their needs and modifies exercises to meet their abilities.”

Indeed, that was the case when I visited YouFit recently to observe a SilverSneakers chair yoga class run by Culley.

As she slowly guided the participants through the poses, she encouraged them to “intensify” the move if it seemed easy, but not to overdo it or risk injury.

“Do not compare yourself to any other student today,” she told the class at the beginning. “Just allow yourself to open up.”

Culley is a certified personal trainer and fitness and yoga instructor. She teaches several SilverSneakers formats, including circuit training and “classic,” which is low-impact aerobic training with strength and conditioning.

Shanavea Pratt, group exercise director for YouFit, said the members love Culley, who kicked off the SilverSneakers classes when YouFit opened in Midlothian in 2015. She’s so popular, it’s tough to fill in for her when she goes on vacation.

Pratt, who covers Culley’s classes now and then, laughed as she said, “The people who take my class are the ones that don’t mind change.”

Culley has a solid following. Her SilverSneakers classes fill up, and the club has to ask participants to sign up ahead of time.

“Of the four YouFit gyms in Virginia, hers have the highest attendance,” Pratt said.

SilverSneakers is a community fitness program targeted to older adults. Classes include yoga, water resistance, circuit, cardio and other formats.

SilverSneakers executives visited the Midlothian YouFit last summer to present an award to Culley in front of class participants, family and friends. The inaugural Instructor of the Year competition was part of the program’s 25th anniversary.

Ethel Walker, who took the yoga class I visited, said the SilverSneakers offerings at YouFit started off really slow.

“Through word of mouth, it grew and grew,” Walker said. “Donna has been really instrumental in helping people at their own level.”

During the class, Culley reminded her yoga participants that each person has different capabilities. She made her point by joking around.

“Even if you have an identical twin here, you’re different,” she said.

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Maria Howard is a group exercise instructor for the YMCA of Greater Richmond and the University of Richmond Weinstein Center. Her column runs every other week in Sunday Flair.

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