At 8:30 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, seniors were lining up at Spectrum Fitness for the second SilverSneakers exercise class.
You might think there was a rock star inside the Perkins Road gym.
In a manner of speaking, there was — the class instructor Barrett Murphy.
“That’s our Laine,” said Susan Miller, 71.
While Murphy, 81, has a few decades on Laine Hardy, the 18-year-old “American Idol” winner from Livingston Parish, he’s got a loyal following, and now has a national honor.
SilverSneakers has named him its 2019 Instructor of the Year from among 1,200 nominees. SilverSneakers is offered at 15,000 fitness locations across the country.
“I was blessed to win,” Murphy said. “I’m trying to reach out and get more people involved, because it’s a great thing.”
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His SilverSneakers pupils call him “Coach,” a reference to his career coaching in high schools and colleges for more than four decades. He was head football coach at Catholic, Belaire and East Ascension high schools and trained in strength and conditioning at LSU. Since the 1990s, and he has had a variety of jobs inside and outside of sports, none of which satisfied him as much as coaching, he said.
Eight years ago, Murphy heard about SilverSneakers, a national organization that connects seniors to fitness classes paid by their Medicare supplemental insurance plans. He trained to learn the program and convinced Spectrum to let him start a class at its gym. He began with four people.
Today, about 300 show up for the 10 classes Murphy leads at Spectrum or Humana’s Airline Highway location.
“They come in at 7:30 in the morning, 80, 90 years old,” Murphy said. “Let me tell you: It better be a damn hurricane when they don’t show up, because they’re going to be here. You can’t get in the parking lot.”
Murphy leads hour-long, low-impact classes that include cardio, stretching, balance and strength, and he keeps it moving with a mix of motivation and humor. He warns talkative exercisers that he’s brought duct tape in case they become distractions. Instructing students to do squat exercises over a chair that serves as a safety net, he gets them to laugh about their nervousness.
“The chair is not going to move. The first thing some of you did was look for that chair,” Murphy told them. “It’s not going to move. Your fanny is going to move.”
Moving their fannies — and other body parts — is, of course, the whole point.
“Let me tell you what I tell them: Sitting will kill you,” he said. “It’s just like alcohol, just like drugs. It’s just as bad as any of that. When you sit, you’re going to die. You’ve got to get on your feet. I don’t care whether it’s just walking around the block. Just get up and do something.”
Throughout the class, Murphy moves around, encouraging exercisers by name.
Class members share the social vibe; some of them have started going out to eat together. They also sign get-well cards for those who are sick and observe each other’s birthdays. Having served in the Marine Corps, Murphy brings a cake each Nov. 10 to mark the Marines’ birthday.
“We celebrate life,” he said. “We do that for them, and it’s fun. I know cakes aren’t the best thing to have at the party, but if you’re at that age, eat what you want. I don’t care. Just come.”
Murphy gets lots of positive feedback from those who do.
Jane Bahlinger, 65, has been coming for 14 months and said the exercise has helped her deal with her multiple sclerosis.
“Coach has adapted the class for me," she said. "In that time, I have gained so much strength that I rarely fall now. It’s changed my life. It’s given me more ability to go and do. We were actually able to take a vacation and travel because of the changes. I didn’t think I would ever travel again.
“Coach has created a situation that is so inspiring for everyone. It is exciting.”
Murphy is older than a lot of the people in the class.
“It encourages me to keep going,” he said. “I’ll be 82 years old in July. I could sit on my butt at home and do nothing. I don’t want to do nothing. They make me feel that I have a place in life. It really helps me.
“As long as I’m healthy, I’m going to roll with it.”