For more than 45 years, Coach Barrett Murphy has helped people of all ages get fitter, stronger, and healthier. At 81 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down.
Barrett Murphy has always known coaching was his calling. The 81-year-old Baton Rouge native has worked in the fitness industry for more than 45 years—first as a high school athletic director and coach, then a college football coach, and now a beloved SilverSneakers instructor.
Murphy takes his work seriously, to say the least. In the 1970s, he was one of the original members of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing the strength and conditioning profession around the world. During his time as a high school coach, he and his players participated in physiological research studies through Louisiana State University. And over the years, he’s spoken at various health and fitness conferences around the Southeast.
When it came time to retire from football coaching eight years ago, Murphy didn’t embrace a leisurely lifestyle. Instead, he discovered a whole new group of people to instruct. Spectrum Fitness, a gym in Baton Rouge, approached him about teaching group fitness classes for older adults, and he didn’t hesitate for one second.
“I started with kids, and now I’m with ‘my people,’” Murphy says with a chuckle.
His first few classes only had about four students, but “now we have a lot more coming,” he says. And that’s a big understatement.
Today, Coach Murphy, as his students affectionately call him, teaches more than 300 people in 10 classes per week. Each class usually has 40 to 50 students, but it was once so packed that the fire marshal got involved, saying the room was over capacity. To accommodate his loyal fans, Coach Murphy simply split his hour-long class into two 45-minute sessions.
While many factors have led to his success as an instructor, a few key things have earned Coach Murphy the title of 2019 SilverSneakers Instructor of the Year. Whether you’re an instructor, a student, or just starting a new workout program, you can learn something from his five-step fitness philosophy.
Step #1: Make Everyone Feel Welcome
At both Spectrum and Humana Neighborhood Center where Coach Murphy teaches, many students have health conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, while others have had a stroke at some point. No matter their background or physical limitations, he treats everyone the same.
Coach Murphy welcomes each individual to class with a smile and encouragement—ready to suggest modifications when necessary.
“I tell people, ‘If you have to sit and do it, just do it. You’re a part of this family,’” he says.
That personal attention extends beyond the beginning of class. Coach Murphy makes sure students with any special needs are in the front row, closer to him, to ensure their safety. It’s one reason why he’s witnessed some incredible success stories over the years.
One student in particular stands out: Jane, who has multiple sclerosis and battled another debilitating disease that left her bedridden for almost a year, has been a regular in Coach Murphy’s classes and made remarkable progress.
“She’s the most determined person I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. “These days, she’ll do the elliptical and can do an 80-pound leg curl!”
Step #2: Don’t Be Afraid to Break the Mold
Coach Murphy regularly teaches SilverSneakers Classic classes, but no matter how many times his students come back, they’ll never get bored—and never stop seeing results.
He makes it a point to mix up the programming and address specific issues that are important for overall health and well-being. For example, during the cardio section of class, he incorporates changes in direction to help strengthen the neuromuscular system.
Working on hand-eye coordination with fitness balls is another key element of class. “We’ll toss the ball in the air to work on shoulder mobility, and then we’ll do figure 8s between the legs,” he explains. “Not only is it a great way to improve the mind-body connection, but it’s also a lot of fun!”
The ball is also used for drills to boost grip strength. “I’ll have them grip the ball with their fingers and make a movement like they’re taking the lid off a jar,” Murphy says. For older adults, having a strong grip is so important for a variety of tasks, from opening a jar of spaghetti sauce to being able to grab a chair or counter to get back up after a fall, he says.
Finally, he never skips—or goes easy on—balance exercises. “While the average person in this age group can only balance for about 15 seconds, in my classes, it’s always 45 seconds,” he says. “If they have to put their foot down and then pick it up again, they will.”
The improvements they see in their balance over time are well worth the hard work, he says.
Step #3: Always Exercise the Mind, Not Just the Body
Coach Murphy’s workouts are never just physical. He incorporates clever ways to keep the brain engaged, like giving different verbal and visual cues during classes.
“I’ll explain that I’m going to demonstrate a different move than the one I say out loud, so they have to pay close attention to what I’m saying—not just watch what I’m doing,” he says.
This might happen during the balance drills, when Coach Murphy calls out for students to stand on the balls of their feet and make a Y or T shape with their upper body, or make a “touchdown” shape by lifting their arms above their heads—a signature move of Murphy’s. His actions may differ from what he says, so students are required to watch and listen.
It also comes into play during the final segment of class, when Coach Murphy does another signature drill his students have grown to love. “We’ll sit in the chair with our hands resting on our thighs, and when I raise my hands and clap them, they have to do the same thing,” he explains. “They have to watch my hands and clap at the exact same time, and if everyone stays alert, we’ll hit a perfect streak.”
At the end of the drill, everyone claps twice. That’s how all of Coach Murphy’s classes conclude.
Step #4: Cultivate Community
All group fitness classes offer an easy way to connect with like-minded people, but Coach Murphy takes it one step further by planning social events for his students.
“When people come to the club, it’s like a big social gathering,” he says. In addition to the opportunity to exercise, SilverSneakers classes give members a chance to meet other members—and simply get out of the house, he says.
“I’m a friendly guy. I love working with seniors—it’s a lot of fun and we joke around.”
Coach Murphy also plans celebrations for special events, such as birthdays of members and the Marine Corps (he served in the Marines in his youth), Halloween, and Valentine’s Day.
And yes, cake is included. “When it’s a birthday party, I always say the cake doesn’t have any calories—you can eat all you want!” he says jokingly.
Step #5: “Don’t Let the Old Folks In”
This is Coach Murphy’s favorite advice for his students, inspired by a Toby Keith song called “Don’t Let the Old Man In.” It was the theme song in Clint Eastwood’s film The Mule.
The lyrics describe what Coach Murphy considers the key to staying vibrant: You’re only as old as you feel—and you can feel as young as you want.
“If you want to stay active and feel great into your 90s, it’s actually pretty simple,” Coach Murphy says. “Just ‘don’t let the old folks in!’”
Congratulations to Our Instructor of the Year Finalists
In addition to Coach Barrett Murphy, SilverSneakers would like to recognize and congratulate these four finalists:
- Anthony Rodriguez, an instructor at Gold’s Gym Alamo Heights in San Antonio, Texas
- Lisa Doll, an instructor at Axiom Fitness in Meridian, Idaho
- Anita Stephens, an instructor at Durango Hills YMCA in Las Vegas, Nevada
- Eliot Perez, an instructor at Harriet and Joe Foster YMCA in Houston, Texas
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