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Silver Sneakers, golden fitness

The exercise program for seniors, available through a major health insurer, is getting the older crowd in shape - but that's not the only benefit.

By YVONNE SWANSON
Published April 27, 2004

photo
[Times photos: Michael Rondou]
Dale Gage, 58, right, doesn’t let vision impairment keep him from his 45-minute walk to and from the fitness center. He credits his workouts with making him feel younger.

  photo
Working with the large rubber balls at Lifestyle Family Fitness in St. Petersburg are, left to right, Joan MacQuarrie, Muriel Covington and Joan McKim.
Joseph Andrasic, 84, the oldest participant in his class, uses the exercise program to help manage a heart condition.   photo

photo   Group fitness instructor Tammy Dixon works out with the class, many of whose members are more than twice her age.

Dale Gage is up each day at 5:30 a.m. He feeds the stray mother cat and her three kittens that live under his house. He eats a banana and takes vitamins. He dresses in workout clothes and puts on his Nikes. Before he leaves his house at 6:15 a.m., he'll get his cane. He doesn't go anywhere without it.

It's a long 45-minute walk to the gym, especially when you're carrying a gym bag packed with a towel, water bottle, hat and two pairs of sunglasses - a light pair for overcast days and a dark pair for when it's sunny. He walks down 62nd Avenue N, then crosses the intersection at Fourth Street N. Gage's cane helps him maneuver the 1-mile trek beside busy streets.

For the past 16 weeks (since Jan. 6), rain or shine, Gage has had a new reason to get out of the house. It's called SilverSneakers.

* * *

In another part of town, 80-year-old Lucy Batchelor is getting off the 12-hour night shift as a part-time nurse's aide for Bayshore Home Health Service in Largo. Dressed in a teal uniform and wearing white lace-up nursing shoes, she hurries to the gym. She doesn't want to miss a single minute of the SilverSneakers exercise class that starts at 8 a.m.

While most seniors are still having their morning coffee and reading the paper, Batchelor, Gage and at least two dozen other men and women have filled the large group room at Lifestyle Family Fitness on Fourth Street N. They're here to stretch and reach, sit and stand, twist and march. And they're all smiling. Laughing. Wearing little name tags. Who would have dreamed exercising at this age could be so much fun? Some people would even say it has changed lives. Their lives.

"Since 1999 until now, I have been feeling sorry for myself. I did nothing," admits Gage, 58, who had to retire five years ago on disability when macular degeneration stole most of his sight. "Going to the gym has helped me out. Before I felt like I was 65; now I feel like I'm 45. Working out makes you feel better."

That's exactly what health insurer Humana is banking on since teaming up with a national health management company to offer the SilverSneakers Fitness Program to its Medicare-eligible members in the Tampa Bay area. Designed to help seniors stay in shape, meet new friends and have fun, SilverSneakers has more than 1.4-million Medicare-eligible members nationwide. In the Tampa Bay area, more than 4,000 seniors are enrolled in the program, which was launched in January at local Lifestyle Family Fitness locations and YMCAs.

Here's how the program works: Medicare-eligible individuals (those 65 and older or qualified by disability) enrolled in Humana's Gold Classic or Gold PPO plans receive a free basic fitness center membership, including use of exercise equipment, classes and amenities such as swimming pools, hot tubs and saunas.

There is no additional cost to Humana members beyond their monthly insurance premium, which in many cases is paid in full under Medicare. By comparison, a Lifestyle membership with similar benefits costs more than $50 a month, according to Tim Calhoun, Lifestyle group fitness coordinator and certified SilverSneakers instructor. At the YMCA, an individual senior 65 or older would pay $37 a month for basic membership, says a spokeswoman at the YMCA of the Suncoast.

While the program is new in the Tampa Bay area, health insurance companies in other parts of the country have been offering SilverSneakers for nine years. It's a win-win-win situation. Participants enjoy a free gym membership and the benefits of regular exercise and socializing; the participating fitness centers are paid each time a SilverSneakers member works out; and the health insurer saves money because regular exercise among older adults is proven to reduce medical claims. In fact, a leading health care actuarial firm found that older adults who exercise less than once a week have 8 percent higher medical costs than those who exercise regularly.

The fitness imperative

SilverSneakers is the brainchild of Mary K. Swanson (of no relation to the author), an enterprising health care consultant who devised a fun, healthful way to combine exercising and socializing for seniors - and then convinced insurers it would result in better health outcomes. Her inspiration came from her father, who suffered a major heart attack at 50, recovered, then joined a health club and exercised regularly for the next 30 years. Although he succumbed to a heart attack last year at 82, he enjoyed three decades of good health. He even went bowling the day before he died, says Swanson, president and CEO of HealthCare Dimensions Inc., the Phoenix company that manages SilverSneakers for 24 health insurers, including Humana, BlueCross BlueShield, Kaiser Permanente and PacifiCare.

Despite the much publicized benefits of exercise, 51 percent of adults 65 to 74 don't do it, and that figure jumps to 65 percent of adults older than 75. Healthy aging is a challenge for most older Americans, according to the 2000 Medicare House Outcomes Survey, which found 88 percent of adults over 65 have at least one chronic condition and 68 percent have multiple illnesses, the most prevalent of which are heart disease, arthritis and diabetes.

"It is so intuitive that physical activity is going to make people healthier," Swanson says. "Sixty percent of the people who come to our program have never exercised in a health club. We are breaking down barriers here."

The fitness of older people "is one of the most important issues facing America. Fitness for young people is an option; fitness for old people is imperative," says aging and exercise expert Dr. Walter M. Bortz, clinical associate professor of medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif. He contends that simply improving leg strength among the elderly, a key component of the SilverSneakers program, could prevent or at least delay nursing home admissions. "If your legs get noodley, then your bowels get noodley and you are destined for the nursing home," he warns.

The National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md., is studying physical activity and exercise and its effect on disability and other health outcomes in older people. A recently completed NIA-funded study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found postmenopausal women who are physically active in their later years function better and have fewer problems with performing basic daily activities. The 229 women, whose average age was 74, were followed for 14 years and measured on such activities as eating, dressing, bathing and mobility.

Lucy Batchelor's experience is a perfect example. On her first day at Lifestyle Family Fitness, she had a difficult time walking up the 18 stairs from the lobby. A young man suggested she take the elevator. "I was surprised when he asked me if I wanted to use the elevator. I had to hold the rail and take baby steps," she recalls.

After three months in the program, Batchelor scales the stairs to and from class twice each week with much more ease. What's more, she's able to use her right arm again after years of immobility following an injury that never healed properly. "It has really helped me. It has given me a new life," she says.

Rolling back the years

About two dozen seniors of various fitness levels have filled the exercise room at the Lifestyle gym. Bright light streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

Some are dressed in shorts and SilverSneakers T-shirts, others in long pants and polo shirts. Their feet - laced up in extra-clean sneakers, oxfords and loafers - are tapping to disco music from, Saturday Night Fever to Madonna. When a dance version of Dean Martin's 1958 hit Volare is played, everyone gyrates their hips in an exercise their instructor calls the "Hula Hoop."

"Remember when you used to dance? Use those hips," cajoles Tammy Dixon, who at 35 is half the age of most participants. "Stand or sit, it's up to you!"

This and other nonimpact exercises can be performed standing, with a hand resting on a padded chair for support, or seated. Using elastic bands, balls and weights, the movements are easy on joints and help improve balance, muscle strength and coordination.

Specific movements help improve activities of daily living, such as climbing stairs, carrying groceries and opening jars. For example, participants pull elastic exercise bands, which look like jump ropes with handles, across their chest to the opposite side of their waists. They're encouraged by Dixon: "Great, guys! Really sock it to them. Now shake it out! And tap those toes if you want to!"

Dixon's students love it. "It just makes you feel great, like you're going to go out and conquer the world," says Shirley Emery, water bottle in hand after marching around the room to Stars and Stripes Forever. Each of Dixon's classes ends with music provided by students. It's often big band music, but today's it's John Philip Sousa marches.

"It's amazing. I definitely feel more fit," says 74-year-old Robert Brown. Since starting the program in January, he's more flexible, can get up from a chair with more ease and is sleeping better, too.

"They are feeling young again," comments Dixon. "It has only been a few months. Imagine how they will be after a year."

More than just fitness

An important part of the program is the opportunity to socialize with other seniors. That is especially true at the YMCAs, where a variety of classes and social events are available to members. "We know that socializing is the reason people come here. It's not for the exercising. They come for the social environment," explains Maureen Rinaldo, wellness director for the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCAs.

Last month each of the 10 Tampa branches participating in SilverSneakers averaged just over 500 visits. The organization already had a strong program for seniors, thanks to its "Sit and Be Fit" classes that have been offered for decades, as well as water aerobic classes.

Dale and Ruth McIntyre use the indoor pool at a YMCA and work out on the weight equipment at a Lifestyle gym. That's an advantage of SilverSneakers membership: Seniors can use any participating facility just by showing a membership card.

The McIntyres, who have been married 44 years, never imagined they would have gym memberships. "We couldn't believe it when we got the letter from Humana. It was like wow! It's unheard of, especially from an HMO," recalls Ruth. "We were just ecstatic because both of us could go. I had called the Y (about membership), but we are on a fixed income and we just couldn't do it. By the time you pay the monthly fee and the gas to get there, it was too much," she says.

Health Care Dimension's CEO Mary Swanson says offering the program free is essential to the success of SilverSneakers. "Cost is a barrier for seniors. They are not a population that is used to spending money on themselves," she says.

That's certainly true of Joseph and Mary Andrasic of St. Petersburg, who have been married 56 years. They admit they wouldn't join the gym if it weren't free. But now that they're enrolled in SilverSneakers, they hold a special place at the Lifestyle gym. In fact, Joseph Andrasic is practically a SilverSneakers legend.

At 84, he's the oldest in the class. The former truck driver has a history of congestive heart disease, and was hospitalized for the condition repeatedly last year. On a Sunday morning in March, while attending church at Hope Lutheran in St. Petersburg, Joseph thought he was having a heart attack. He had severe chest pains and shortness of breath. "I thought I was going to die," he recalls.

He was rushed by ambulance to Northside Hospital and Heart Institute, where doctors determined he was having an angina attack. He spent three days in the hospital. On the fourth day, he put on his sweat pants, SilverSneakers T-shirt and boat shoes and headed back to his exercise class - and he has continued going twice a week ever since.

Some people at the gym think he bounced back so quickly because he's dedicated to exercise and healthy living. But he has them fooled. It's much simpler than that. "I'm a glutton for punishment," he jokes. "I'm alive, and that's all I can say. I go because my wife wants me to go, and I want to keep her happy. Amen."

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg.

[Last modified April 23, 2004, 09:09:25]

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