Health Care

Active Seniors ‘Wear’ Silver Sneakers

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Every day, seniors take to the pool at the Salem Community Center, to the treadmills at Buhl Community Recreation Center in Sharon, Pa., and the weight machines at Creekside Fitness & Health Center in Canfield. They go through fitness classes at the newly renovated Central YMCA downtown where they participate in everything from yoga to water aerobics.

And, perhaps most important, they’re socializing.

In a time when 10,000 Americans a day turn 65, Silver Sneakers offers those who need physical exercise and the friendship of their peers the most free access to fitness centers across the country.

“Fitness can be intimidating. If you’re coming in alone to this big gym, you don’t always know where to start,” says Courtney Angelo, assistant manager of Creekside. “Silver Sneakers is about being healthy and active and socializing with people. As you grow older, you might not have as much family around. So they can come out as a social activity.”

Silver Sneakers, created by Tennessee-based Tivity Health, reimburses fitness centers up to $30 per month per user, depending on how often they swipe their membership cards. Some centers, such as Salem Community Center and the YMCA of Youngstown, allow full use of their gyms and pools, while others only offer classes.

To become a certified Silver Sneakers instructor, trainers take an online test and attend one of the program’s seminars. There, they complete the entire class workout before heading to a classroom.

Among the classes Silver Sneakers offers are sessions that focus on cardio routines, yoga, flexibility, water aerobics, stability and Classic, a low-intensity class where participants use hand-held weights and resistance bands.

“They break down each segment. ‘This is the bicep curl for level one. Level two is one arm then the other. Level three is full extension,’ ” says the group fitness director at Buhl, Vicki Vargo. “It’s not just choreography. It’s the music, the presentation. You have to make it fun or they won’t come back.”

Each course has three levels of activity and instructors tweak the activities to meet the lowest common denominator. If one participant can’t do a certain part of the routine, Vargo explains, then that part is skipped or modified.

Among the entire membership of the Youngstown YMCA, President and CEO Thomas Gasce notes, the reason most drop their membership is because they aren’t using it.

When fitness seekers are engaged in their workouts, doing more than just the same few steps over and over again, they enjoy the session. With Silver Sneakers serving mostly seniors – there are other segments of the program, called Boom and Prime, aimed at younger generations – getting them active and keeping them that way improves their health and longevity.

“We just had a population health roundtable where we talked about chronic diseases and health and wellness programs. [Silver Sneakers] really helps that aging population become healthier,” Gasce says. “We have a very robust water aerobics class. It’s easy on the joints and it helps with arthritis. It’s crucial to health going forward.”

The YMCA of Youngstown, one of the early adopters in the area, began its Silver Sneakers programs in 2005. Salem Community Center joined a year later, says Executive Director Heather Young, and participation has grown each succeeding year.

Part of the reason, she says, is the growing of number of health insurance plans that offer a Silver Sneakers membership. Many new members to the recreation center first come in because they got a Silver Sneakers mailer. Among current participants are AARP’s Medicare supplement insurance, Aetna, Anthem, Highmark, Humana, Medical Mutual and UnitedHealthcare.

“Insurance companies are getting on board with the preventive side of things versus just the treatment side of things. That’s what this is,” Young says. “They’re offering it in the hopes that through physical activity, you’re staying healthy and not utilizing the insurance needs as much.”

Fitness centers and YMCAs that accept Silver Sneakers are reimbursed up to $30 per month per user. That figure is usually below the cost of a standard membership, but from the perspective of the centers, it’s well worth it. By staying active – even if they visit once or twice a week – those over 65 have better immune systems, improved heart function and lower risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, dementia and obesity.

Equally important, all four say, is the social aspect of the classes. For some members, Vargo says, a Silver Sneakers class may be the only time they’re interacting with others all day. Others may have lost close family members or seen their children move away. By joining Silver Sneakers they regain some sense of purpose.

At Buhl Recreation Center, Vargo has seen groups of racquetball players who’ve been together for decades move from the court to the pool and rib each other the same as before. At Creekside, one Silver Sneakers member brings in flowers every week, Angelo says. A group at the Davis YMCA in Boardman started a pickleball league.

“The founder, Rich Archer, said it’s grown beyond playing pickleball with each other. They celebrate birthdays and go to dinner,” Gasce says. “He said he has such good relationships with people he never knew before.”

For all fitness centers, that sense of community is one of the foremost purposes beyond physical fitness. “It’s a positive thing to have it here, to see how they love the classes and how it’s growing and how excited they get. We know them,” Angelo says. “This has helped them, but also us grow a community.”

Pictured: At Creekside Fitness & Health Center, general manager Lori Hillman leads a Silver Sneakers Classic class.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.