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EXERCISING THE YEARS AWAY
'SILVER SNEAKERS' PROGRAM HELPS PARTICIPANTS FEEL YOUNGER, HEALTHIER AND MENTALLY FIT

Chris O'Donnell did not go all the way to West Seneca for an exercise class for older people because she was overweight.

She went because she was mad at her husband.

For the second time, he'd made an excuse to get out of exercising with her for half an hour at the senior center close to their home in Lackawanna. In the car by herself, she fumed. A drive would make her feel better.

She remembered seeing a health-insurance flier offering a free membership at the YMCA and the offer for hourlong exercise classes geared toward older people. Seventeen minutes later, she was there.

"In the pit of my stomach I was scared to death about doing this on my own," she said, describing how she felt two years ago when she was 67 and signed up for the class. "I closed my eyes, and I took it. I took it for all it was worth."

Over 3,500 Independent Health clients in Western New York have signed up for the same program as O'Donnell. The "SilverSneakers" program is Independent Health's offer of free membership and exercise classes at 18 Western New York clubs. The program is one example of an effort to get older people to do what national health experts say they should: fight the nation's obesity epidemic, stave off disease and wind up with the boost of confidence that comes with strong muscles.

"Many of the things we attribute to aging are due to physical inactivity, not aging," said Barry Franklin, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and director of cardiac rehabilitation at Michigan's William Beaumont Hospital.

Unexercised muscles disappear more quickly in sedentary people, who start to have trouble getting out of chairs or into a bath.

Yet small change can be big. It takes six weeks to establish a habit, such as a brisk walk for a half-hour. Do that three or four days a week, and that increases aerobic fitness and oxygen-fueled energy by 20 percent.

"We can reduce the aging process by 15 to 20 years," Franklin said. "So that's why it's important. So that's what they're doing in your area. That's where it's at."

When O'Donnell began the Y exercise classes that involve bouncing balls and sitting in a chair to pull elastic bands, she was starting to feel old. To get up stairs, she held the handrail. She got winded easily. And, once a month, she got her back adjusted to feel better.

Two years of a three-times-a-week exercise class regimen went by. She hasn't been to the chiropractor in a year and a half. ("I love him. I just don't need him anymore.") Thirty pounds fell away.

"I was flabbergasted when I got on the scale," said O'Donnell, who'd weighed 185 pounds for 25 years. "I should have started when I was 40."

'The Fountain of Youth'

Since she began, the class she takes three times a week has doubled in size to a gym full of 60 or 70 who do slow-paced aerobics. Unlike regular exercise classes, usually dominated by women, a little more than half these classes are male.

For the people wearing sweat shirts and marching with water bottles on the floor beside them, the experience works as a kind of fountain-of-youth elixir. At the end of a Thursday morning class some explained.

After two years of this, Marge Dowling feels younger. She laughed, refusing to reveal any specific details about her age, which was somewhere above 65. "When I'm working, I miss it terribly," said Dowling who works at a school sometimes.

A gray-haired man paused to say that the long-term care insurance company he talked to was impressed to hear that he takes the classes. A pert blond in a neatly buttoned white shirt stopped as women beside her bragged that she looked 68 and not her true age of 78.

After a few years of this exercise, which includes five-times-a-week trips to the Y with time in class and on the elliptical machine, Micheline Langendorfer, 71, says everything feels better.

"I couldn't do this before," she said, flexing into a deep knee bend, one of the moves the teacher guides the class to do.

Jeanne Smith, 68, had a mishap involving a caught heel and twisted body that left her sitting at home, afraid to move. She got herself to the Y and started the classes, even though someone said it would be too easy. She widened her eyes in alarm to think of not coming. Now her legs feel fine. She's back to normal. "This is marvelous," she said.

Get moving

It used to be that young adults were at the center of the fitness industry. As the population ages, and the 65-and-older client base grows, the more it makes sense to cater to the older set, said Colin Milner, a trade advocate and CEO at the International Council on Active Aging.

About 85 percent of people 65 and older have chronic health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, which can be helped by exercise, he said. From age 35 to 70, people lose half their strength if they don't work to keep muscle, he said. And people 50 and older could save an estimated $2,200 a year in medical bills by working out.

"So it's in everybody's interest to get older people moving," Milner said. "It's amazing the results people get just doing something."

The Y's exercise classes, while designed by staff, were provoked by a special deal to serve the 65 and older Medicare clients covered by the insurer Independent Health. The company bought a packaged program, called SilverSneakers, from a firm based in Arizona.

HealthCare Dimensions sells the package -- promotional materials, exercise guidelines, health-club-and-insurance-company rate agreements -- to health-insurance companies.

It now counts as clients 39 health plans in 28 states with 950 fitness centers.

Other companies, not just health insurers, are also working to attract the older market, which Milner says is the fastest-growing one. Curves, one of his clients with local branches, now has 850 sites nationwide.

Tailored programs attract older adults who may have missed what was a fad and then the norm for younger generations: joining a health club and trying out classes to find what works.

For the unschooled, just signing up can be off-putting.

"Once older adults get some guidance, they love it," said Chhanda Dutta, a health scientist at the National Institute on Aging who helped compile a free exercise guide. Exercise can work at any age. People in their 90s can get stronger, which is one of the keys to avoiding hip-breaking falls. "The good news is, it's never too late," Dutta said.

Chris O'Donnell has been working on her husband. She's offered to go walking a mile a week with him and to add on to her three-times a week Y schedule. She's still waiting to hear.

"It's up in the air whether he does or he doesn't," she said. Already, she does a mile of walking after each class. As she left the gym to walk up the stairs to the Y's second-floor track, she clutched a water bottle in one hand and a portable tape deck with earphones and a favorite Rod Stewart tape in the other. She has no need for the handrail now.

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com