There’s no doubt about it, regular exercise is an important part of living a healthy and balanced life. We can all recall when we were kids, when it felt like you could run as fast as the wind, and nothing could ever hurt you. Over time, we learn that’s not exactly the case. If you don’t use your muscles, they don’t stick around. With age comes added difficulty for doing even mundane activities. This is true especially for seniors, who are at added risk for muscle atrophy and chronic health problems due to inactivity.

According to research conducted by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), Americans 18 and older are exercising now more than ever before. Financial concerns, accessibility and scheduling are some of the reasons frequent exercise can be a challenge for seniors. Fortunately, there are programs that aim to bridge the gap between elders and appropriate exercise routines. One such program is SilverSneakers, a national fitness initiative that has partnered with more than 13,000 fitness locations across the country. The classes are often covered by insurance, or are otherwise very affordable compared to most gym memberships, which makes them substantially easier for retirees to afford.

SilverSneakers Fitness was established in 1992 and uses proven methodologies based upon more than 20 years of experience. The program encourages participants to partake in strength training, aerobic and flexibility exercise through access to a variety of venues and programming. The program also enables a connection between fitness and socialization, with most of the participants bringing along friends or making new ones in the classes.

One of the many local centers that has partnered with this National initiative is the Austin Drive Community Development (ADCD), a 501 (c)(3) division of Bethesda Cathedral Church in Decatur. Around the back side of the church is a small building, separated from the church by a small path. Double doors lead into a carpeted room with a modest stage. On any given weekday, you might hear upbeat music emanating from a small sound system and the encouraging words of a teacher, keeping time with the beat. Seniors laugh and joke while they follow along, the vibe a distinctly warm and welcoming one.

On the day that I visited, instructor Cynthia Phillips was leading the charge. Her enthusiastic demeanor and encouraging words kept the group moving happily along with the music. If someone appeared to be winded or in need of a moment’s rest, she would call out and suggest having a seat or drinking some water.

For Phillips, the experience of leading these classes is a personal one. Outside of working at the ADCD, she runs a shared gym space that she opens to the community and small start-ups. Many of her classes are with young people or children, and she has seen firsthand the disparity between young people and the elderly when it comes to fitness. “I want these seniors to know how powerful they are,” Phillips said with conviction.

As the class wound down, I found the time to briefly speak with a few of the participants to get their opinion on the SilverSneakers fitness program.

Merdis Toliver, a retired mapmaker for the Yellow Pages, has been taking SilverSneaker classes for the last couple of years, and averages four to five classes a week. At 69 years of age and with two hip replacements under her belt, she credits her good health in part to her fitness regimen. “I look at it as the more mobile you are the better,” she said, noting that the replacements are predicted to last for around 10 to 15 years, and “I plan to be around longer,” she said with a laugh.

The classes at the Austin Drive Campus are not only convenient in location for Toliver, they are also covered by her insurance, which allows her to take a variety of classes. When asked which class is her favorite, she had a hard time choosing. “I like them all,” she told me, citing how much the teachers work with the students during the classes. “I also like the way they tell you what body part the workout is good for.” By increasing her understanding of how exercise is affecting her body, Toliver is able to tailor her fitness routine to her needs.

So does the program help her live a healthier and happier life? “Oh heck yes,” she said with a chuckle. “You should have seen me when I first started walking after surgery.” The grimace that followed told me all that I needed to know about how strong she is and how far she has come.

It’s not only recovery from injury that is aided by participation in SilverSneakers, but also improved health habits. For Juanita Foster, a 71-year-old BellSouth service evaluation department retiree, the classes have become a regular part of her fitness regimen. “I had been wanting to find an exercise program,” she said, so when she received a mailing from AETNA Health Insurance with information about the SilverSneakers program, she gave it a try. “I enjoy exercise, plus my doctor wanted me to lose a few pounds and stabilize my blood pressure.”

For more than two years now, Foster has been a regular at strength building and yoga classes at ADCD. Strength training is an important part of retaining agility and mobility, but she says that her favorite class would have to be yoga. “Yoga class is the only one I don’t watch the clock for,” she said with a laugh. To maintain a healthy and able physique, it is important to not only retain muscle strength, but also to remain flexible. Plenty of injuries can happen from being overly tight and tense, so a gentle stretching routine can do wonders for seniors who might otherwise remain mostly stationary.

“I keep moving,” said Esteen Fletcher, who at 81 has seen firsthand the effects of a sedentary lifestyle on seniors when she was a private duty nurse’s assistant and worked in a nursing home. “I like to move instead of so much stillness,” she said. Staying active not only during classes, Fletcher also works out at home, doing tai chi and running on a treadmill.

Foster has been taking classes at the ACDC location for the last seven to eight years, after being brought along initially by a friend. Since then, it has become a regular part of her life. “I like the dance part mostly,” she said, dancing a bit in her seat. “It keeps me moving.”

“You get to be our age, you better be moving,” Toliver chimed in. Everyone nodded in agreement.

Beyond the physical benefits, taking regular fitness classes can also be a much needed mental health boost. “Exercise is not just physical,” asserted Mary Lee Davis, a 72-year-old attorney and part time judge in DeKalb Traffic Court. For Davis, exercise has always been a big part of her life, and she was an avid runner well into her 50s. These days, Davis takes classes such as water aerobics, strength building and tai chi.

“I love the meditation aspect,” she said, noting that she gains balance, mental clarity and a meditative mindset from working out regularly. “It helps keep me centered and focused.” As a very active person, Davis feels a drive to make up for sitting all day on the bench during work. To her, that means taking classes that work out her body while calming her mind.

In order to maintain healthy habits, you have to also enforce them, so regularly attending SilverSneakers courses with friends is one of Davis’ top priorities. “I don’t allow much to interfere with my classes or my grandparenting,” she said with wry conviction.

Learn more

For those seeking a healthier lifestyle, socialization and a variety of courses, SilverSneakers is a wonderful option that makes exercise a feasible part of everyday life, regardless of where you live or how much money you have in the bank. To find a SilverSneakers location nearby and apply for membership, go online to www.silversneakers.com, call 866-584-7389 or email silversneakerswebcontact@healthways.com.

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