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Fit and feeling fine

Thousands of seniors have discovered the healthful benefits of regular exercise programs

Updated: 08/02/08 7:15 AM

Strengthening and maintaining muscle tone are not the only reasons these seniors choose to to work out regularly. They also love the camaraderie. Shown above from left: Lyn Laman, Joan Papaj, Nancy Samrany, also below, and Baynham Ellson.

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Nancy Samrany walks with a purpose toward the back of the fitness room, where she stakes out a place near the air conditioner. On this sultry summer midmorning, she knows cool air will help power her through 45 minutes of cardio exercise, Silver Sneakers style.

“All the fun is at the back of the class,” Samrany said with a mischievous grin. At 71, the silver-haired Samrany knows the importance of exercise, not only to keep her body limber but her cholesterol under control. As Samrany gathers hand weights, resistance cables and one bright pink exercise ball, she keeps watch for more of her Silver Sneakers pals.

More than 10,000 people over age 65 participate in the Silver Sneakers program sponsored by Independent Health at 30 health clubs throughout Western New York. The program is one of a handful of healthy initiatives — including Fit Blue from Blue- Cross BlueShield of Western New York and Active Anytime from Univera — that offer free club membership and exercise classes to seniors.

“Exercise is extremely important, as powerful a medicine as any of the pills I prescribe,” said Tonawanda geriatrician Dr. Robert Stall. “Exercise is natural. It’s something we used to do all the time when we didn’t have a sedentary lifestyle because of all our modern technological advances. It’s something we need to get back to — along with eating well.”

Other clubs partnering with Silver Sneakers include Gold’s Gym, Bally Total Fitness and Summit Fitness Center. Swimming, too, is part of the exercise program for those 1,500 seniors who attend classes at YMCA branches throughout the area.

“Silver Sneakers more or less opened up the door to seniors who were never health club users,” said Kelly Standage, program development director for YMCA Buffalo Niagara. “All of a sudden, senior membership has grown steadily over the last three years with specific classes geared toward seniors.”

Today, more seniors are paying more attention to their muscles, and the importance of strengthening and maintaining them. Exercise, they found, also increases metabolism, which keeps weight and blood sugar in check.

For Samrany and others, exercise class has become a scheduled appointment, one she looks forward to keeping each day.

Back in the game

“Keep those arms swinging just like toy soldiers!” shouts Shirley Barberic, fitness instructor at the Medically Oriented Gym (M. O. G.) on Grand Island. “Now take a deep breath and get some water.”

Twenty minutes into Cardio Circuit class, Barberic circulates past each of the 20 participants, checking their posture and making sure they stay hydrated.

“You really need to keep on top of what people are able to do,” said Barberic. “We’re working not just muscle groups, but balance and cardio and postural endurance. We’re always looking for good posture.”

Each Silver Sneakers class — Muscular Strength/Range of Movement, YogaStretch, Silver- Splash — requires five components: warm-up, resistance, cool-down, final stretch, relaxation. Barberic energizes her classes by injecting creativity and experience. At M. O. G., she is a favorite.

“This program prepares them to be safe and independent in their livelihood as long as possible,” said Barberic. “For this group of people, it’s about getting back into the game of life more than anything.”

The standing circuit workout combines fun with fitness to improve cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Upper body strength work, with handheld weights, elastic tubing with handles and a ball, is alternated with nonimpact aerobic choreography. A chair is offered for support, stretching and relaxation exercises.

“Loss of muscle mass and strength oftentimes limits what people can do,” said Tom Haney, wellness administrator for Independent Health. “I love the Silver Sneakers program. The vast majority of seniors who are not physically active become isolated with age. Silver Sneakers gives them a chance to do something they would not do on their own with people similar to themselves.

“No one expects to live forever, but staying physically active prolongs the years of productivity and offers the highest possible quality of life,” said Haney. “The logic behind the program not only gives seniors access to exercise facilities here, but as they travel throughout the country. Our snowbirds move comfortably from one facility to another.”

Overcoming pain

Like a runner who gets a natural high from running, the cardiorespiratory system receives a boost during exercise, improving the capacity of the heart and lungs, according to geriatrician Stall.

“It can help reduce high blood pressure, which many of my patients have,” said Stall. “Anything I can do to help remedy problems without medication is a good thing. Your body produces its own narcotics, its endorphins. Even chronic arthritic pain can improve through regular exercise.”

Samrany, a former Grand Island town clerk, and friend Marion Fabiano regularly walked the island but became frustrated when weather thwarted their efforts. Eventually both took their exercise indoors and joined the Silver Sneakers program at M. O. G.

“Everyone is so friendly,” Samrany said. “It was so easy. You can do as much or as little as you like. There’s always a challenge. A lot of the people in class are not able to do as much as some of us are.

“It’s also turned into being a little social club,” Samrany added. “Yesterday we went to Artpark. There were 20 of us. This is a great way to spend your senior years. Exercise is very important at every age, but when you get older you need to keep limber.”

In six months, Samrany also reduced her cholesterol from 242 to 170. While she also takes cholesterol medication, Samrany believes exercise played a major role.

“Everybody would like to lose weight — of course they would — but I’m not really here for that. I want to keep that cholesterol down.”

Older people have a lower threshold of disease, Stall pointed out. Anything you can do to improve the functional reserve of your body’s systems will also help ward off serious complications, balance problems and falls.

“Muscles help support the joints, and if your muscles are weak, it’s just bone on bone supporting your joints,” Stall explained. “So if you can strengthen your muscles, you also will improve your arthritic symptoms and help prevent their progression.

An aging society

Stall sees only patients over the age of 65 in his Tonawanda office, where the average age is

80. By the year 2030, it is predicted that 20 percent of the population in this country will be age 65 or older. In addition, according to Medicare Expenditure Panel Survey in 2004, 90 percent of people over the age of 65 will have at least one chronic disease.

“I have a lot of patients who come in complaining that they’re tired all the time,” Stall said. “I do the blood tests, look into their medications and really can’t find a specific reason. Oftentimes these patients are overweight, not morbidly obese but carrying more weight than they should be. They don’t exercise.”

Baynham Ellson of Grand Island started her fitness program four years ago upon the urging of her doctor, who suggested she exercise to prepare for knee surgery.

“I had knee surgery a year ago,” said Ellson, 75. “I did the therapy and now I’m back with Silver Sneakers. It just makes my whole body feel great. Every teacher gives a different routine that uses all the muscles in the body. It’s a great workout.”

Ellson, whose aquamarine shirt matches the color of her eyes, has built much more than muscle tone at the gym. She has also created a healthy social network.

“When I had my knee surgery, I got a card from everybody in this class,” she said. “There’s a definite social feeling to this. Everyone’s a good friend. You might not know the last name, but you know the face. The camaraderie is here.”

When a regular member of the class was recently diagnosed with cancer, her prolonged absence did not go unnoticed. Upon her return Monday, “Betty” was greeted with a steady stream of heartfelt hugs and exclamations. More than one exerciser wiped away tears after seeing Betty had returned.

At almost 80, Lyn Laman is a retired art teacher who is youthful and so lively she invited a visitor to attend class with her the next day.

“It will change your mind about old people,” Laman insisted. “We are just like you.”