Special Reports

Triangle seniors find plentiful fitness options – at the right price

From left, Ed Tremblay follows tai chi instructor Norma Ferrell in a weekly tai chi class Ferrell teaches at Rex Wellness Center in Raleigh on Wednesday, August 20, 2014.
From left, Ed Tremblay follows tai chi instructor Norma Ferrell in a weekly tai chi class Ferrell teaches at Rex Wellness Center in Raleigh on Wednesday, August 20, 2014. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Correction: This story incorrectly stated that Rex Wellness Centers participate in the Silver Sneakers program. They do not.

Forget the rocking chair. At 81, Helen Merentino rocks. Her line dancing classes at the Cary Senior Center draw more participants than bingo or badminton, table tennis or tai chi.

Oh, sure, you’ll see Merentino’s 90-some beginners stepping gingerly to gentle waltzes, but also the intermediates working up a sweat to Pitbull’s “Timber” (“You Better Move, You Better Dance”). And her competition team, the Caryliners, regularly places at the North Carolina State Fair.

Health insurers are hoping that more seniors will forsake their rocking chairs as Merentino did. Scientific evidence of the health benefits of exercise continues to mount, and many health care providers see it as a way to reduce demand for health services and thus reduce overall costs within the system.

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina springs for free gym memberships with some Medicare insurance plans, as do Humana, Aetna/Coventry and United Healthcare. Only gyms using the SilverSneakers program for seniors qualify for the insurance benefit, but nowadays, scores of gyms do. That’s thanks to the nationwide marketing campaign of SilverSneakers’ creator, Healthways of Franklin, Tenn.

While “free” is attractive on a senior’s fixed income, the fees charged by Triangle area senior centers are usually nominal and the scope of their activities extensive. What’s more, seniors can find some freebies, including Merentino’s line dancing classes.

Merentino discovered her passion for fitness the way many people do: weight gain.

“I retired at 65, and the first thing that happened was I got a disease affecting the arteries. I got blockages. It was very dangerous,” Merentino said. Taking the steroids used to treat her illness caused her weight to climb from 119 to 240 pounds. “I was miserable.”

When her sister-in-law insisted that she try line dancing, Merentino found that her love for ballroom dancing translated immediately. “One class and I was so hooked,” she says. And clearly she was possessed of some talent, which led a teacher to ask her to teach a Latin line dance.

“It’s what got me through the illness,” she said. It took 4-1/2 frustrating years to bring her weight down, but she kept moving.

After a brief relocation to Florida, Merentino came back to Cary and sampled several line dancing groups in the Raleigh area without finding the right flavor for her. So she asked the Cary Senior Center director if she could start a class there. She began with a demonstration at a Christmas party.

“Ninety-two people signed up, with a waiting list,” she said. That was seven years ago, and Merentino’s classes are still huge, thanks to her experienced helpers, Mitzi Kelley, Leslie Stephens, Susan Stanko and Connie Belton, who position themselves around the ballroom to coach the beginners.

Nita Winn, 75, says she used to walk 3 miles twice a day until she became a serious line dancer. Winn also takes tap dancing at the Cary Senior Center and belongs to the line dance performing group, helping to win gold medals at the Senior Games. “We’re pretty serious,” she says. “It keeps my mind active; remembering the steps takes concentration.”

Winn’s reward could well be avoidance of dementia, feared by many seniors. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2003 found dancing to be the “only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia,” while the link to other forms of physical activity couldn’t be proved. Other studies have found plenty of other benefits to recommend exercise.

Never too late

Senior students at the Five Points Active Adults Center in Raleigh expect a vigorous workout from their CardioSculpt classes, and trainer Jane Stenhouse doesn’t disappoint them. Her hourlong sessions include aerobics for cardiopulmonary health, weights for strength training and exercises for balance and flexibility, says Stenhouse.

“A lot of people get started in their 70s,” she says. “It’s never too late.” Stenhouse also teaches a fitness class tailored for two 90-year-olds.

One of the CardioSculpt regulars, Kate Swander-Smith, 67, says the class keeps her active and in shape.

“You don’t feel like you’re exercising. You’re dancing and having fun,” says Swander-Smith after working out to a soundrack of Jimmy Buffet, Johnny Cash and others. “All the instructors here are certified. They give you modifications if you’re limited in what you can do. You can feel confident going in there.”

Camaraderie makes CardioSculpt worth the $8 fee Swander-Smith pays for several weeks of classes. She also participates in free SilverSneakers programs at a women-only Curves gym, one of a couple dozen local Curves locations.

Long known for its aquatics programs, the YMCA now offers a SilverSneakers version, says Kevin Cragwell, health enhancement director at the Carrboro Y. “Believe me; you can get a great workout, cardio and strength. We use these flotation dumbbells, which are very effective if used properly,” Cragwell says.

Avoiding injury is key, say Cragwell and others.

Easy on the joints

Norma Ferrell adds joy to a list of goals for her students of the Chinese art of tai chi. Ferrell describes the slow movements of tai chi as “a meditative type activity” that is easy on the joints.

“Some people come to tai chi because they’ve tried everything else,” she says. Unlike other forms of exercise, tai chi cultivates life energy, an abstract notion Ferrell equates to joy. “Whenever we get excited, we express joy – life energy – in our tone of voice.”

Ferrell teaches tai chi at the senior centers in Cary and Raleigh, at YMCAs, doctors’ offices, The Cypress and The Cedars retirement communities, as well as some churches. “The nuns at St. Raphael’s (Catholic Church in Raleigh) got interested in tai chi,” she said.

This summer, Ferrell taught tai chi at the Rex Wellness Center in Raleigh, classes that were free for seniors enrolled in the SilverSneakers program. But as members, they also had access to the center’s medically supervised aquatics and exercise programs.

Seniors who took advantage of SilverSneakers gym memberships across the U.S. had significantly lower health costs, researchers found in a 2008 study sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nevertheless, with a quarter of adults over 65 receiving less than 10 minutes of moderate exercise a week, the CDC concluded there is ample room for improvement.

Insurers are increasingly stepping up with fitness programs of their own. For example, Humana is opening a facility in Raleigh Sept. 23 that will sponsor fitness walks and other activities while Blue Cross and Blue Shield offers discounts on equipment and sponsors the Senior Games.

“They say that exercise is the best medicine,” says 85-year-old Seymour Hochheiser, the lone male in CardioSculpt class on many days. “And I agree with that.”