For many, basic daily movements are pointless. The muscles used to buckle up, carry groceries, or push a vacuum cleaner are often actions that don’t take long to think about when you’re young.
“It seems so simple, but there’s a lot of muscle involved in something as simple as reaching and grabbing a plate from the cupboard, or bending over and emptying the dishwasher… There’s a lot involved, your core, your legs, everything that,” said Carrie Marquardt, director of health and wellness at Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA and Crossfit Meriden
However, as they age, they begin to lose these motor skills. As a result, local fitness and senior centers have partnered with SilverSneakers, a fitness and wellness program for adults over 65 that focuses on daily exercise to maintain skills and prevent other health issues, while socializing and having fun.
health care and fitness
SilverSneakers is one of the first national programs for active older adults to combine fitness and healthcare by offering full gym memberships and online resources at no additional cost. The program is a Tivity Health brand and is available through multiple insurance providers, including Anthem, Aetna, ConnectiCare and Medicare.
SilverSneakers has grown exponentially since its inception in 1992, according to its website.
For the first four years, its founder, Mary Swanson, developed and taught a chair-based workout called the SilverSneakers Classic at 15 Arizona locations. Now SilverSneakers are available at 22,000 fitness centers in all 50 states. In addition, it has developed numerous spin-off curriculums, such as SilverSneakers Yoga and SilverSneakers Circuit.
According to Tivity Health, as of 2020, SilverSneakers had two million SilverSneakers.com accounts and more than 18 million adults age 65 and older were eligible for the program through Medicare plans.
Connecticut has 32 certified fitness centers, community-based centers and parks that offer SilverSneakers classes.
Beginning in 2023, SilverSneakers will be the only senior fitness program offered through Apple Fitness+.
Marquardt explained that SilverSneakers are subsidized by insurance. A member then has access to all certified fitness locations and the online resources such as live and on-demand training videos, workshops and the SilverSneakers GO mobile app.
A SilverSneakers membership is equivalent to a gym membership, she added. At the YMCA Meriden-New Britain-Berlin, program members have access to all facilities, services and classes such as yoga, water classes and aerobics.
“Just because you’re a SilverSneakers member doesn’t mean you have to go to a SilverSneakers class,” Marquardt said. “It just means you can be part of an establishment that was part of SilverSneakers.”
Daily exercise classes
Erin Ambler, Wallingford Senior Center program coordinator and SilverSneakers contact, explained that the in-person tuition focuses on balancing and strengthening the muscles needed for everyday life.
Actions like getting out of a chair and putting on a seat belt require more movement than people realize, and focusing on these muscle groups is for prevention. For example, Ambler said some classes teach the best way to recover from a fall to avoid what she called the “long lie.”
“That’s what we always focus on [movements] so people can improve their everyday lives — pick up the laundry basket, get in the car, get out of the car, put on the seat belt,” she said. “These motor skills need to be practiced over and over again in order for the body to keep it in check.”
The fitness classes vary in difficulty and intensity to cover all ranges of motion. Additionally, instructors can easily modify all movements and workouts, Ambler said.
She added that by offering a variety of classes with modifications, seniors feel more comfortable exercising to keep important muscles healthy.
All instructors are certified by SilverSneakers through their educational program, explained national team trainer Dina Sexton. They are trained in the basics of working with older, active adults, further trained in a special course and recertified every two years.
According to Sexton, recertification ensures that all instructors are up to date with the latest studies on physical activity for seniors and provides an opportunity to develop new choreographies or training circuits.
“Whether you’re a senior or not, sometimes starting a new fitness program when you’re new to fitness can feel a little intimidating. It’s something new,” she said. “SilverSneakers trainers are aware of that and understand that. So when you go to an in-person class, you’re welcomed… Maybe it takes some of their hesitation away.”
Most fitness locations offer one or more SilverSneakers classes. For example, the Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA offers five courses, while the Southington-Cheshire YMCA offers three courses, according to the SilverSneakers Center database.
Similarly, the Wallingford Senior Center offers the SilverSneakers Enerchi classic course and online classes, Ambler said.
However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, Sexton explained that SilverSneakers has undergone some of the most significant changes she’s seen in her 10 years with the program. Due to social distancing and quarantine, all classes have been moved online. Teachers relied on numerous streaming services to teach their courses.
According to its website, SilverSneakers offers over 100 online courses and hosts numerous workshops and workouts.
Sexton said SilverSneakers will continue to offer virtual classes, although in-person classes are now available.
As of August 2022, SilverSneakers held the Guinness World Record for most viewers of a dance fitness lesson on Facebook Live, with over 3,000 viewers in a 30-minute workout, beating the previous record of 1,500.
“It’s been pretty amazing to see seniors using technology in ways they might not have had before and really embracing it, so SilverSneakers Live is still going strong today,” Sexton said.
Physical activity is a proactive tactic to avoid future health complications, Marquardt said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends adults age 65 and older get at least 150 minutes of exercise per week, with at least two days of muscle strengthening and balance exercises.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, physical activity can help reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, blood lipid levels, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
In addition, regular exercise helps improve quality of life by reducing anxiety and depression, improving sleep and physical functioning, and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, physical activity reduces the risk of falls and fall-related injuries for older adults.
A 2021 study by Avalere Health found that average healthcare spending for SilverSneakers Medicare customers was reduced by 16% compared to non-program beneficiaries.
Additionally, SilverSneaker members saw a 26% decrease in hospital expenses and found that members used outpatient services at higher rates than non-members, indicating better healthcare management.
“[The program] gives seniors incentives not only to get healthy, but also to stay healthy so that nothing happens later,” says Marquardt.
She added that many YMCA SilverSneakers customers often leave feeling refreshed and energized. Many plan to have lunch or run errands after a workout.
One day after class, Marquardt jokingly asked one of the gentlemen [participants], “Hey, how are you feeling? Do you feel younger?’ and he’s like, ‘I still feel old, but I feel really great.'”
Cheshire Community YMCAs Membership and Wellness Director Kristin Champagne explained that some daily exercise helps with mental function, as many seniors need to think about exercise and put it into action.
“Things to do that [the seniors] how to think about movement patterns they are not used to has been shown to help with cognitive function and the maintenance of cognitive function. It’s great for people who have already been diagnosed with memory or cognitive decline,” she said.
Champagne said another great appeal of SilverSneakers group classes is the social time.
The Cheshire-Southington YMCA has hundreds of SilverSneakers members and sees 25-30 competitors per class. She added that the majority of them are incredibly social, using class as an opportunity to work out with friends and have lunch later.
“They hold each other responsible for coming to class. If someone doesn’t come to class, they call each other,” she said. “They come at the same time and look for each other. So it’s essentially a social network.”
Meanwhile, Sexton said she can’t count the number of post-SilverSneakers workout potlucks she’s participated in over the past 10 years as an instructor.
She said attending regular classes helps build confidence and gives clients something in their schedule to look forward to. They also often celebrate small victories like a good doctor’s appointment or long distances with the grandchildren.
“Adding regular exercise can improve daily life. It can improve daily functioning. It can help seniors live with confidence. It can help relieve pain and help them feel independent in their lives. And it’s something they enjoy,” Sexton said. “That’s why I think it’s so important to have that as an option and something that participants can enjoy.
To learn more about your eligibility, visit the SilverSneakers website.
Health Justice Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a Corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at Record-Journal by making a donation to https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.