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Seniors are stepping toward better shape through Salem YMCA fitness program

Written by  Tina Joyce

YMCA member, Brenda Holtzlander, knows that a class can make a difference, a big difference. She enrolled in a program two years ago called Enhance®Fitness at the Salem Family YMCA and has rarely missed a class since. 

Enhance®Fitness is an evidence-based, 16-week program endorsed by the United States Health and Human Services Administration on Aging and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Arthritis Program. “This is a low-impact exercise program designed to help older adults, and those with chronic diseases, become more active, energized, and empowered for independent living,” explains Tricia Reynolds, Branch Executive for YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge in Salem. “Those who suffer from arthritis, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes can greatly benefit.”

A program is considered evidence-based if it meets the following criteria:

  • Evaluation research shows that the program produces the expected positive results
  • The results can be attributed to the program itself, rather that to other extraneous factors or events
  • The evaluation is peer-reviewed by experts in the field 
  • The program is endorsed by a federal agency or respected research organization and included in their list of effective programs

“I am lucky. I have healthy genes,” acknowledges Brenda. However, this didn’t keep her from making the effort stay active and be part of a results-driven program. Enhance®Fitness supports many seniors with chronic conditions, but has also proven to enhance the health of already active individuals.

Brenda, at a spry 72 years old, represents a growing population of individuals who recognize the benefits moving purposefully, building strength, and increasing flexibility is to the body—especially with age. “It really helps with my knees. I haven’t had as much problems with stairs since starting the program,” explains Brenda. “I find it easier to move around on a daily basis too.”

“It really helps with my knees. I haven’t had as much problems with stairs since starting the program,” explains Brenda.

The classes are designed to offer seniors, at all levels of fitness, an environment that promotes an active lifestyle during retirement. “We exercise our whole body and we go at our own pace,” says Brenda. The cost is low and participants are diverse in their needs. “We have some that can barely walk and others who are more active. We get to choose if we complete the exercises standing or sitting.”

Every class is lead by a certified instructor who has completed Enhance®Fitness training. The instructor leads the participants through a series of dynamic (moving) cardiovascular exercises in a relaxed and fun environment. The class is offered for 60 minutes, three times per week. The hour is divided into three main sections: 20 minutes of cardio, 20 minutes strength building, and 20 minutes of stretching.

“Our instructors either understand having a chronic condition or have always worked with people battling chronic conditions so they have a real passion for helping those individuals,” explains Stephanie Gillenwater, Chronic Disease Coordinator for YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge.

The true benefits come from an endurance-boosting warm up, followed by strength training to improve tone and balance, and an adequate cool down to increase flexibility and reduce soreness. The class is set to upbeat music and participants use soft ankle and wrist weights if they choose. “These weights are easier than holding traditional light-weight dumbbells,” explains Stephanie.

Patients with arthritis, fibromyalgia, and residual effects from a stroke gain mobility and relief from pain with the class format. “The fact that anyone who has a chronic condition can do the program is very rewarding,” Stephanie shares. “The classes also meet a very social need for some, as well. Many gain a great community of friends by participating.”

The program is open to both members and non-members of the YMCA, making it ideal for those seeking both physical and social benefits. “If I didn’t have the class to go to, I would probably just stay home and piddle around the house,” admits Brenda. “It motivates me to get out and be active!”

Participants must obtain a signed release from their doctor before beginning the program and a senior fitness test is completed in the beginning of the 16 weeks and at the end of the 16 weeks to show progress and results.

Senior Fitness Tests:

  • Bicep curls one minute (counted)
  • Up and go (go from a seated position to walk eight feet out around a cone and back to seated) timed
  • Sit to stand one minute (counted)

“It’s great to see people have success. One lady at the end of her 16-week class no longer needed the use of her cane to walk. To see the joy on her face, because of her success in the program, is what it is all about.”

-Stephaine Gillenwater, Chronic Disease Coordinator for YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge

There are many added benefits of participating in a group fitness environment. There is natural accountability and social comradery when you meet weekly. “You build friendships with people you exercise with,” comments Brenda.

Additionally, Brenda adds she feels good as soon as the class is completed and the rewards are abundant. “It helps clear my mind and improves coordination and memory. I am lucky; I am not on any medications.”

According to the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, who published the pilot program results, the group improved significantly in almost every dimension tested, from physical and social functioning to levels of pain and depression. The program significantly improved overall fitness and health. The original independent study demonstrated that participants realized:

  • 13% improvement in social function
  • 52% improvement in depression
  • 35% improvement in physical functioning

The success stories are parallel to the perks—both plentiful. Other program participants and research have reported reduced joint inflammation and pain, less depression, increased energy, and substantially better sleep patterns. Subsequently, these benefits result in fewer visits to doctor’s offices and lower dependence on medications, both contributing to lower overall healthcare costs.

Brenda and her class participants sometimes celebrate the end of a 16-week session by going out to eat. Each of them knows it’s not the end of a class, but merely the beginning of another.

The class currently meets Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:15-12:15 am. To learn more about the program, prerequisites and costs, contact Stephanie Gillenwater at the YMCA of Virginia’s Blue Ridge in Salem at 540.387.9622. For more information about the Enhance®Fitness program and published research, visit: