Sun, Dec. 15

Senior citizens have fun working out at own pace with SilverSneakers
Improved health, socializing, confidence among benefits offered

SilverSneakers participant Lee Vadnais laughs during a workout at the Cottonwood Recreation Center. VVN/Travis Guy

SilverSneakers participant Lee Vadnais laughs during a workout at the Cottonwood Recreation Center. VVN/Travis Guy

Laughing, socializing and improving their health. This is the scene inside the exercise and dance studio at the Cottonwood Recreation Center, every Monday through Friday morning.

SilverSneakers, a 2-year-old program at the rec center, is gaining popularity with the 65-year-and-older community, offering them a chance to improve their overall health in a fun and stress-free environment.

The SilverSneakers program is a nationwide initiative that works with insurance companies to let senior citizens "take greater control of their health by encouraging physical activity and offering social events," according to the SilverSneakers website.

There are many different types of classes offered that focus on certain aspects each day. From yoga, or chair yoga, to using an elastic band or 2-to-5-pound free weights, the teachers of the classes have the participants do different exercises each day, promoting a stronger body and healthier living.

At the rec center, Karen Runyon and Lori Maine run the SilverSneaker classes. The teachers keep the classes light-hearted, even cracking jokes occasionally to give the participants a good laugh and abdominal workout.

Runyon has been a trainer for over the past two decades, starting when she opened her own studio in New Jersey. After she moved to Cottonwood, she received her SilverSneakers certification after a friend told her about that, and has been involved with the program for the past five years.

"I decided I'm just going to do my own thing. I got every certification I could probably get; it took me about a year to get everything I wanted to get," Runyon said. "I always exercised, but not to that degree, and then I decided to open up my own studio. It was mainly for women over 40, then I turned 50, so for women over 50. It just sort of progressed, but we had some 21-year-olds in there, we had 90-year-olds in there, so it was sort of a mish-mosh."

The SilverSneakers is something that Runyon is passionate about, because of the opportunities that it provides to senor citizens. A big plus for the program is that it is covered by most insurance policies, meaning that people on a fixed income do not have to worry about the added burden of paying for the classes or gym membership.

"I love the program," the New Jersey native said. "I love what it does for the people, and the fact that becoming a member of the SilverSneakers program, through the insurance companies, entitles them to free gym memberships, free classes, which when you're on a fixed income, that means a lot, and you're paying insurance anyways, so you might as well get maximum benefits out of it."

Rec center fitness supervisor Trevor Faust sees the benefit of the program as well, and the ease participants are at when they are able to do the classes with people of the same age.

"It's a great program, especially for seniors who don't like to get out on the fitness floor and use our equipment," Faust said. They just feel more secure being in a class with the same age group of people, and it's a good environment for them."

The environment SilverSneakers offers its participants is also a big draw, according to everyone from Runyon and Faust, to participant Paula Gilpin and Lee Vadnais.

"One nice thing about the SilverSneakers program is that anybody can do it, but most of us are mature people, and its not as if we're competing against 19-year-olds, and that's what really makes it nice," Vadnais said. "We can work at our own pace, there are people that are close to our capabilities and our health."

With the members not in an intimidating environment, they are able to makes strides in becoming healthier, with instructors, and even doctors, impressed with how far they have come along.

"I come here five days a week, and I've been doing it for about a year-and-a-half, and it's amazing," Gilpin said. "My strength has, I don't know whether doubled, or increased, I guess I should say. My balance is unbelievable now, and cardio, my tests for my doctor have improved."

Runyon has had experience with watching seniors progress in the classes, and even had her mother working out when she lived on the East Coast, which led to a different 90th birthday present.

"I started my mom on an exercise program when she turned 85," Runyon said. "New York born and raised, never did really exercise, except for her daily activity, and by the time she turned 90, for her birthday present, I gave her 5-pound weights and a big ol' stability ball, and she was absolutely thrilled because she had made so much progress. She was just so proud of herself that she had built up that strength, and she didn't fall over, she wasn't afraid of this and she wasn't afraid to drive."

The increased strength and flexibility senior citizens gain from SilverSneakers gives them confidence where it matter most, their health outside of the gym. One of the biggest fears people face when they reach a certain age is breaking a hip, shoulder, knee or leg. The classes offered help participants feel confident that they can go about their daily lives and not have to worry as much about that happening.

"If you go to fall, not because your doing it on purpose, but you might not be falling straight," Runyon said. "You might be falling to the side, so you can bring that leg to the side so you have the strength to stop yourself form falling, and that's one of the primary concerns of an older person, is falling. Because breaking a hip, and breaking a shoulder is not a good thing."

The New Jersey native has seen SilverSneakers help senior citizens overcome many health problems. From knee problems to back problems, Runyon emphasizes balance, and how balance can help prevent a serious injury. She encourages her friends to do the same thing with both sides of their bodies.

"If you do one thing with the right hand, do it with the left hand. If you pick up groceries with the right hand, pick them up with your left hand."

In addition to improving physically, Runyon works out the memory as well. She will assign numbers to certain dance moves, and call out the numbers during a song, forcing the participants to recall which move corresponded to the number. She said that it is important to learn something new everyday, because the brain is a muscle and needs to exercise too.

"The balance I've seen developing, the agility and even the mind," Runyon said. When I started this class, a memory thing, you have to learn something new everyday. I don't care what it is, a dance step, a song, whatever, learn something new everyday. It makes a huge difference up here (Runyon points to her brain), the gray matter, along with the physical activity. It's been a really good program."

Faust has seen how the SilverSneakers program has helped the rec center's member improve mentally as well, including in their everyday demeanor.

"They're happier when they come in," Faust said. "They're excited about coming to the rec center and getting involved in classes, because it makes them feel better."

Because doing the same thing five days a week can get tedious and boring, Runyon mixes up her classes, having different exercises every class.

"It never is (the same), primarily because I can't remember what we did the last time," Runyon said with a laugh. "That's partially true, I like to hit ... there's so many body parts, and you can do it in all different ways. If you keep repeating the same thing, that gets really boring, No. 1, doesn't stimulate the brain, No. 2, and the muscles become complacent, balance becomes complacent, so you always want to hit it with something different, and to keep the people enjoying what they're doing."

Since Runyon has been teaching the classes for the past two years, and many of the participants have been going for that amount of time, she has developed a personal relationship with them, which has helped when it comes to certain exercises. She has the knowledge of her participant's health concerns, and will let them know if they should modify an exercise so it does not aggravate an existing condition.

"They're fantastic, and I look at them more as friends (than participants)," Runyon said. "If they're doing one move that I know might injure that shoulder, I'll just say, 'keep your arms down here and do it this way,' to help them, because I want them to feel comfortable."

With the light-hearted attitude and fun nature of the classes, it has kept Vadnais coming back since the program was brought to the rec center.

"I've been in the program for almost two years, and I do classes every day of the week, Monday through Friday, and my doctor is very impressed," Vadnais said. "My strength has improved immensely, I've gone from using a 3-pound weight to 5-and-6-pound weights, I no longer have osteopenia (low bone mineral density), my breathing has improved because of yoga, my balance too. It's just absolutely incredible, because of the classes I'm taking here."

Over the past two years, SilverSneakers has grown from a handful of people to averaging 20-25 senior citizens per class. The yoga class became so popular that they had to add another class, just to accommodate everyone.

"It's grown by leaps and bounds," Runyon said.

Again, the reason it has grown is because of not only what it offers senior citizens, but also how they offer it.

"Everything has been amazing and I say its from exercise and cardio," Gilpin said. "The SilverSneakers is so good, because you can do what you feel you can do. You're not pressured to do more. To have these classes available to us is just fantastic, fantastic."

For more information, visit SilverSneakers at, or call your insurance provider to see if it is offered. The classes are Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the rec center.
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