For many, basic daily movements are mindless. The muscle one uses to put on a seatbelt, carry groceries, or push a vacuum cleaner are often actions that don’t require a lot of thought when you are young.
“It seems so basic, but there are a lot of muscles involved in something as simple as reaching up and grabbing a plate out of the cupboard or bending over and emptying the dishwasher…There’s a lot involved, your core, your legs, all that,” said Carrie Marquardt, health and wellness director of Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA and Crossfit Meriden
However, as a person ages, they begin to lose those motor skills. So, local fitness and senior centers partnered with SilverSneakers, a fitness and wellness program for adults over 65 that focuses on daily movement as a way to maintain the skills and prevent other health issues all while socializing and having fun.
Health care and fitness
SilverSneakers is one of the first national programs designed for active older adults that combines fitness and healthcare by providing full gym memberships and online resources at no additional cost. A brand of Tivity Health, the program is available through multiple insurance providers, including Anthem, Aetna, ConnectiCare and Medicare.
SilverSneakers has exponentially grown since its founding in 1992, according to its website.
In its first four years, its founder, Mary Swanson, developed and taught a chair-based workout called SilverSneakers Classic at 15 locations in Arizona. Now, SilverSneakers is available at 22,000 fitness centers in all 50 states. In addition, it has developed numerous spin-off curricula, such as SilverSneakers Yoga and SilverSneakers Circuit.
According to Tivity Health, in 2020, SilverSneakers had two million SilverSneakers.com accounts and more than 18 million adults 65 and older were eligible for the program through Medicare plans.
Connecticut has 32 certified fitness centers, community-based centers, and parks offering SilverSneakers classes.
Starting in 2023, SilverSneakers will be the only senior fitness program offered through Apple Fitness+.
Marquardt explained that SilverSneakers is subsidized by the insurance company. A member then has access to all certified fitness locations and the online resources such as live and on-demand workout videos, workshops and the SilverSneakers GO mobile app.
A SilverSneakers membership is equivalent to a gym membership, she added. At the Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA, program members have access to all its facilities, services and classes such as yoga, aquatic 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 a facility that was part of SilverSneakers.”
Daily movement classes
Program coordinator at Wallingford Senior Center and liason for SilverSneakers, Erin Ambler, explained that in-person classes focus on balance and strengthening the muscles needed for daily living.
Actions such as getting out of a chair and putting on a seat belt require more movement than people realize and focusing on those muscle groups acts as preventative care. For example, Ambler said some classes teach the best way to recover from a fall to avoid what she called the “long lie.”
“We always focus on those [movements] so that people can enhance their act of daily living– Picking up the laundry basket, getting into the car, getting out of the car, putting on your seatbelt,” she said. “These motor skills need to be practiced over and over and over again, so the body keeps it in check.”
The fitness classes vary in difficulty and intensity to accommodate all ranges of motions. In addition, instructors can easily modify all of the movements and workouts, said Ambler.
She added that by providing a variety of classes with modifications, seniors feel more comfortable working out to keep essential muscles healthy.
All instructors are certified by SilverSneakers through their educational program, explained national trainer Dina Sexton. They are taught on the foundations of working with older, active adults then trained in a specialized course and recertified every two years.
Sexton said recertification ensures all instructors are updated on the latest studies on senior physical activities and are an opportunity to brainstorm new choreography or workout circuits.
“Whether you’re a senior or not, sometimes starting a new fitness program, if fitness is new to you, it might feel a little intimidating. It’s something new,” she said. “SilverSneakers instructors are aware of that and understand that. So, if you go to an in-person class, you’re going to be welcomed…Maybe it’ll take away some of that hesitancy that they might have.”
The majority of fitness locations provide one or more SilverSneakers classes. For example, the Meriden-New Britain-Berlin YMCA offers five courses while the Southington-Cheshire YMCA offers three, according to the SilverSneakers center database.
Similarly, the Wallingford Senior Center offers the classic course, SilverSneakers Enerchi and online courses, said Ambler.
However, with the outbreak of COVID-19, Sexton explained that SilverSneakers underwent some of the most significant changes she had seen in her 10 years with the program. Due to social distancing and quarantine, all classes were moved online. Instructors relied on numerous streaming services to teach their courses.
According to its website, SilverSneakers offers over 100 online classes and hosts numerous workshops and workouts.
Sexton said that although in-person classes are now available, SilverSneakers will continue to provide virtual courses.
Since Aug. 2022, SilverSneakers has 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 session, beating the previous 1,500 record.
“It was pretty amazing to see seniors using technology in a way that maybe they hadn’t before and really embracing it, so SilverSneakers Live is still going strong today,” Sexton said.
Physical activity is a proactive tactic to avoid health complications down the road, Marquardt said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that adults ages 65 and older exercise at least 150 minutes a week with at least two days of muscle-strengthening and balance activities.
According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, physical activity can help lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, numerous cancers, blood lipid profile, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Furthermore, regular exercise helps improve quality of life by reducing anxiety and depression, improving sleep and physical functions and maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, for older adults, physical activities lower fall risk and fall-related injuries.
A 2021 study by Avalere Health found that average healthcare expenses for SilverSneakers Medicare clients were reduced by 16% compared to non-program recipients.
In addition, SilverSneaker members saw a decrease in hospitalization costs by 26% and noted that members used outpatient services at higher rates than non-members, which indicates better health management.
“[The program] gives seniors incentives to not only get healthy but to stay healthy, so things don’t happen down the road,” said Marquardt.
She added that many YMCA SilverSneakers clients often leave feeling refreshed and energetic. Many make plans to grab lunch or run errands after a workout.
After a class one day, Marquardt “jokingly asked one of the gentlemen [participants], ‘Hey, how do you feel? Do you feel younger?’ and he goes, ‘I still feel old, but I feel really great.’”
The membership and wellness director of Cheshire Community YMCAs, Kristin Champagne, explained that some daily movement exercises help with mental function since many seniors need to think about the movement and translate it into action.
“Doing things that [the seniors] have to think about, like movement patterns, that they aren’t used to… has been shown to help with cognitive function and maintaining cognitive function. It’s great for people who have already been diagnosed with any kind of decline in memory or cognitive functions,” she said.
Champagne said another major appeal of SilverSneakers group classes is social time.
The Cheshire-Southington YMCA has hundreds of SilverSneakers members, and sees 25-30 participants per class. She added that the majority of them are incredibly social and use the class as an opportunity to work out with friends and later grab lunch.
“They hold each other accountable for coming in for a class. If someone doesn’t come to a class, they call each other,” she said. “They come at the same time and they 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 has attended over the past 10 years as an instructor.
She said attending regular classes helps build confidence and gives the clients something on their schedule to look forward to. They also often celebrate small victories such as having a good doctor’s appointment or walking long distances with grandkids.
“Adding regular exercise can improve daily lives. It can improve daily function. It can help seniors live confidently. It can help reduce pain and feel independent in their lives. And it’s something that they enjoy,” Sexton said. “So I think having that as an option and something that participants can enjoy is so important.
To learn more about your eligibility, visit SilverSneakers’ website.
Health Equity Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation at https://bit.ly/ 3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.