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Senior centers focus on fitness

April 04, 2004|by DAVID DISHNEAU

ACCIDENT, Md. - Three years ago, Sally Schwing had little time for senior citizen activities or no interest in exercising at a gym. Now, the 68-year-old homemaker does both at a senior center where fitness machines have replaced card tables and a personal trainer is on staff.

The Flowery Vale Health and Fitness Center, with 59 active members in rural Western Maryland, mirrors changes occurring in many communities where retirees are embracing the benefits of exercise and rejecting cards and bingo.

"It is a trend and it is something that senior centers around the country are focusing on, especially as they are trying to appeal to younger seniors, people 55 and over," said Scott Parkin, a spokesman for the National Council on Aging.

For example, Chicago's Department on Aging provides free fitness and strength training classes twice a week at 48 locations around town. The city's expanding network of senior centers offers daily fitness and exercise classes with personal trainers and modern fitness equipment.

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Parkin had no statistics on the growth of such programs, but Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging, said the trend is accelerating as senior centers, retirement communities and assisted-living centers add equipment and staff to serve a group that he said health clubs largely have ignored.

"Part of the reason the fitness and health clubs today don't attract a large percentage of the older market is, generally speaking, the environment tends to be very intimidating and the programs and services really are geared toward the younger adult rather than the older adult," Milner said. His organization, based in Vancouver, B.C., advocates physical activity to help prevent illness and reduce health-care costs.

Only 30 percent of private health clubs offered senior programming in 2002, but more are focusing on cardiac rehabilitation, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and arthritis, said Brooke MacInnis, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

The benefits of physical training aren't lost on Schwing, who started exercising regularly as part of her physical therapy after knee surgery three years ago. She said she has lost 55 pounds since joining Flowery Vale, and has postponed an operation to replace the arthritic knee.

"This is kind of like a miracle for me," Schwing said. "Somebody told me in church that I smile now. I'm not in pain all the time."

Dot Bowser, 70, a retired postal worker who also lives in Accident said the program created for her by center director Elaine Kackley helped relieve her depression and restore her appetite after heart surgery nearly two years ago. She has gained about 15 pounds and no longer feels tired all the time, she said.

"The doctors, when they found out I was doing the exercise, they were well-pleased with that. Every time I go to see them, they ask if I'm still doing the exercise," she said.

Experts say regular exercise can lower blood pressure, increase strength and stamina, enhance flexibility and improve balance and coordination. A 1994 Tufts University study showed that even at 98 years of age, intense training significantly can reverse a loss of strength.

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