By Brian Goslow
After two recent hip replacements forced her to slow down, Ruth “Penny” Nikolajevs, 67, who had always lived an active hands-on lifestyle, wanted to get back in shape. She had seen the signs for the Healthways SilverSneakers Fitness Program at the local Curves but procrastinated until one day last March, when along with her best friend, Barbara Murray, she walked into the beautifully restored factory building location off this town’s Main Street.
The two women have been moving at a healthy pace ever since, visiting three times a week. It takes them approximately 45 minutes to make two rounds of the facility’s 16 workout stations. Dance music helps get participants’ blood pumping, with automated voices announcing, “Change stations now,” at the end of each station session.
“This is great,” Nikolajevs said. “It’s amazing the workout you get.” So are the results. “I’ve lost inches, I’ve lost weight and I’m aiming to lose a lot more,” she said. “I’ve lost 39 pounds so far.”
Murray, 66, isn’t there to lose weight. After taking a bone density test as part of her annual physical, she was convinced to join SilverSneakers to help with her osteoporosis. “Working out doesn’t take it away but it helps it not increase,” she said. “And it firms up my muscles and keeps them in tone.”
The SilverSneakers program, which is offered at 135 participating Massachusetts Curves for Women locations as well as 37 other participating facilities, including YMCAs, fitness and health centers and gyms for both men and women, isn’t just about working out. It also offers programs to encourage older adults to take control of their health by living a healthier lifestyle.
The program is free of charge to those enrolled in participating Medicare health plans or Medicare Supplement carriers. The biggest SilverSneakers partner for the Millbury facility is Fallon Community Health Plan; other participating health plans in the state are Humana and AARP MedicareComplete provided by SecureHorizons.
Mary Swanson founded the Arizona-based SilverSneakers in 1992.Her inspiration was her father, who had survived a heart attack at the age of 51 and committed himself to improving his life through physical activity. Swanson also had two decades of experience in the health care industry.
Elaine Solomon, owner of Curves Millbury, and her staff have seen the positive results since the program began last January. “I’ve had a number of SilverSneaker participants come who said their doctor told them their cholesterol and bone density tests are better and whatever they’re doing, they should keep doing it,” Solomon said. Curves Millbury currently hosts 75 SilverSneakers members with the oldest being 85.
Fitness tech Debbie Achilles said the biggest benefit participants gain from the Curves workout is body strength and a decrease in body fat. “We measure body fat percentage,” she explained. “It’s fascinating when people see their percentage points go down. With two or three months, you see 3 or 4 percentage points. It’s pretty significant for someone whose body fat is at 40 percent.”
Curves total body conditioning classes, available to all SilverSneakers members, are designed to increase muscle strength, endurance, range of movement, flexibility, balance, agility and coordination and range from 45 –to 60 minutes in length. Classes are offered several times a week.
There are three areas of fitness the program works on, Achilles said. “There is aerobic fitness, to raise your heartbeat; strength fitness, to build up muscles; and flexibility fitness, to strengthen muscles and get them nice and flexible.”
That’s why Jeannine Smith, 71, of Worcester, was there on a recent Saturday morning filling out her SilverSneakers application. She received an artificial heart valve in 2003; at her last checkup, her doctor at Fallon told her she needed to exercise to help overcome her shortness of breath. “I’ve got to get moving or I’ll have more aches and pains than I already have,” she said.
She’s already sold on the program. “By being very consistent, it’s going to help me,” Smith said. “I intend to get in shape. I’m forcing myself to do it. Once I get started, it’ll be easier all the time, hopefully.”
The key is taking that first step. Solomon or one of her staff patiently helps each new — or returning, if necessary — SilverSneakers participant learn to use each of the machines. At first, each machine might seem an unwinnable challenge, but they are well conceived to loosen, then strengthen the muscles. “It’s the same for the arms, same for the legs, same for your abs,” Achilles said. “It’s all for your heart and emotional well-being. It’s a very safe workout. As you increase your strength, you can do more.”
Murray said she’s found walking has become much easier for her since joining SilverSneakers. “It gives me more energy and pop,” she said. “At first, I had sore muscles, mainly in the legs, but it felt good.”
Participants are shown how to use a heart rate chart to measure their progress and are asked about their nutritional habits. “If they say they aren’t losing any weight, we ask them, ‘What are you eating?’ ” Solomon said. “We have classes in nutrition they are welcome to attend.”
Along with the supportive Curves staff is an equally welcoming community. Nikolajevs, a longtime Millbury resident, has run into people she hadn’t seen in years. “We go in and there are people there we never expected to see that we knew from town, and some people we never met,” Murray added, noting strangers quickly become friends. “It’s nice to socialize for an hour.”
There’s also the great feeling of accomplishment one gets from doing something many of their friends and relatives don’t feel capable of. “They’re proud of themselves, going out of their age and doing something like this and the progress they make,” Achilles said. “They come in and leave with a different attitude. I would call it a glow.”
Achilles said someone who knows they need to exercise shouldn’t be reluctant to join the SilverSneakers program. “Especially here, because it’s a safe workout and they can do it,” she said, before pointing out a poster with a message she said conveys the reason everyone, regardless of age, should become more active. It reads: “You don’t stop playing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop playing.”
For more information: visit SilverSneakers.com or call Curves Millbury, 508-865-4700; Curves Worcester, 508-797-0500; Curves Holden, 508-829-2772; Curves Spencer, 508-885-0170; Curves Barre, 978-355-6300; Curves Athol, 978-248-9494.