From Soup to Tomatoes: how this nurse is keeping seniors active

A program that started with a few soup cans is helping to keep northern Ontario seniors active.

Susan Clarke has developed a way to get seniors moving and socializing

Susan Clarke is a nurse who developed an exercise program called "From Soup to Tomatoes." (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

You're more likely to find coffee cups than soup cans at the Elk's Hall in Espanola, Ont., but three times a week. local residents — mostly seniors — gather for an exercise class called "From Soup to Tomatoes."

It's the brainchild of nurse and diabetes educator Susan Clarke. 

She sympathized with her diabetic patients who told her how challenging it was for them to remain physically active. 

"They had hip pain or shoulder pain or back pain. They were afraid to go out in the winter. They were afraid of falling. They didn't have a car or if they did they didn't have money to buy a gym membership," Clarke said. 

"We knew that exercise was crucial not just to manage diabetes but to prevent diabetes."

So with the help of a personal trainer, Clarke oversaw the development of a very basic exercise program.

Instead of standing, clients could sit. Instead of using expensive weights, clients could use soup cans. Thanks to a bit of funding, clients now use actual weights and resistance bands instead of soup cans.

When the program started, Clarke remembers a comment made by one of her patients who agreed to give the exercises a try.

"I explained to her to start low and go slow," Clarke said, suggesting the woman do a few arm curls with no soup cans, then add the soup cans and gradually add more and more reps. 

After "badgering" the woman, Clarke said the woman finally said, "Fine. I'll do it. And I might even graduate to tomatoes!"

Clarke says at first, many seniors were hesitant to try the program. Now, dozens of people take part each week. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Clarke jumped on the idea of progressing from smaller soup cans to larger tomato cans, and the "Soup to Tomatoes" exercise program had a name. 

Each week, dozens of residents in Espanola visit the Elks Hall, and participate in one of the three levels of exercise programs. More than a hundred different sessions are recorded on video, and the participants follow along on a television screen. 

"If you can't do this you're really in bad shape," said 88-year-old Gerald Goltz who has been with the program for several years. 

"I feel better. My bowel movements are better now. I don't have trouble urinating,"  Goltz said with a chuckle.

Clarke says at first, the program used soup and tomato cans. Now that the group has gotten funding, they're using weights. (Markus Schawbe/CBC)

Myrna Vallee comes out to the exercise classes with her husband three times a week. 

"It just allows you to stay mobile. I actually have people saying you're how old?" Vallee said. (She declined to share her age for this story).

Another participant, Darlene Luoma, 70,  says the program has allowed her to "stay active." 

Luoma says part of her motivitation is to stay in shape to keep up with her three grandchildren. 

"I'm able to bike with them, I can hike with them and kayak with them," she said.

The neighbouring communities of Blind River and Sudbury are now offering the exercise program.

More recently, the exercise videos are posted online. 

The program not only allows participants to exercise, but also socialize. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Clarke has received messages from people in Texas who follow the "Soup to Tomatoes" exercises online. They've also had hits from Australia, the UK and even Japan. 

She gets emotional when talking about the impact this program is having on peoples' lives.

"It changes lives. Not just the exercise aspect, but the social aspect. There are a lot of people who come here who live alone. This gives them a reason to get up in the morning. Sometimes it's the only contact they have with other people during the week."

"My dream has come true," said Clarke. "This has become everything I wanted it to be. That's the reward. Listening to people say this has improved their life. People who have lost partners have found love at "Soup to Tomatoes." True story."


Markus Schwabe is the host of Morning Northon CBC Radio 1, based in Sudbury. You can reach him by e-mail at or find him on Twitter @cbcmarkus.


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