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Health and Wellness series: Exercise is essential for maintaining health -- check out senior programs

SILVER SNEAKERS participants work on flexibility in their wrists during a recent session at the DLCCC. (Brian Basham/Record)

People of all ages and physical condition can benefit from some form of exercise, and those aged 50 and above are no exception.

In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Health's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), being physically active contributes substantially to healthy aging.

Regular physical activity can help prevent or control many of the health problems -- high blood pressure, depression, obesity and diabetes -- that often reduce the quality and length of life for older adults.

Adults in the United States, however, tend to become less active as they age, the CDCP says.

To counteract this trend, many exercise programs specifically geared toward older adults are being developed.

One of these is the Bone Builders exercise program developed by the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), America's largest volunteer network for people age 55 and over.

Locally, the RSVP Bone Builders program is administered through Mahube Community Council, which serves Mahnomen, Hubbard and Becker counties.

According to Karen Lenius, senior programs director at Mahube, Bone Builders was first developed by the Massachusetts Department of Health in 1995, as a more affordable exercise option for seniors with limited financial resources.

Another such program is Silver Sneakers, developed by the global health network Healthways. Many health insurance companies around the country offer Silver Sneakers as a free benefit for those who are eligible for Medicare, or to group plan retirees.

One of the chief benefits of the Silver Sneakers program is free membership at a participating fitness center. The Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center (DLCCC) is officially licensed as a Silver Sneakers host site, according to Brent Wolf, DLCCC fitness director.

Another senior health program available locally is Healthy Alternatives, offered by Essentia Health St. Mary's. Unlike the others, it is not a program specifically geared toward physical activity. But Healthy Alternatives includes a variety of services aimed at improving the quality of life for its members, according to program coordinator Sue Braun.

Bone Builders

As the name implies, the Bone Builders exercise program has a specific goal of preventing osteoporosis, a condition that involves the deterioration of bone density. Though bone density loss is a natural part of the aging process, research has shown that it can be significantly slowed through regular physical exercise.

In fact, studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association show that elderly women, who participated in a weight training program twice weekly for a year, gained an average of 1 percent bone density. A control group lost 2 to 2.5 percent bone density over the same time period. Exercise participants also reported increased strength, better balance, more energy and feelings of wellbeing.

"Part of the initial motivation for this program was also fall prevention," Lenius said.

According to the CDCP's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, falls and fall-related injuries are the leading cause of death and hospitalization among seniors, by a nearly five to one ratio over the second place cause of unintentional home injuries.

Of those who fall, 50 percent suffer moderate to severe injuries, and 40 percent lose their ability to remain independent, suffer reduced mobility, and increase their risk of premature death.

"Serious falls are sometimes fatal for seniors," Lenius said, and even if they survive, "a broken hip is often the end of successful independent living, as it may precipitate nursing home confinement."

In addition, senior fall survivors are much more susceptible to the onset of other health issues dramatically limiting their mobility, safety, and independence -- which ultimately leads to increased care provider requirements, diminished enjoyment of their life, and tremendous financial burdens.

"Once people go into the nursing home, living becomes more costly, both for the individual and for society, as opposed to independent living," Lenius added.

Bone Builders is a proactive program aimed at preventing catastrophic falls, by improving balance, strength, flexibility and mobility as well as preventing or reversing the effects of osteoporosis.

"Exercises are proscribed," Lenius explained. "There are six required exercises, and up to 12-14 optional ones that each group can choose."

Each group meets for a total of two 1-hour sessions per week, Lenius said, though they may choose not to meet during certain months of the year due to decreased participation.

One of the more active Bone Builder groups in the area is at the Lake Park Senior Nutrition Site, where participation varies between 6-10 people at each session.

"Participation used to be up around 16, but some died, and some have gotten too ill to take part," said instructor Jeanine Jutz at a recent session, adding, "We could use some new participants."

Jutz, who took the necessary training to become a certified Bone Builders instructor, said that she had been starting to notice some balance and strength issues when she started with the program.

"I noticed some improvement within the first six weeks to two months," Jutz added. "We've been at it for almost two years at this location."

"I think it's built strength in my arms," added participant June Haugrud. "It helps with lifting stuff on and off shelves."

"I had a tightened up sciatic nerve, and it's really helped with that," said Mary Ann Raaen, another regular participant at the Lake Park site. "It's gotten a lot better -- I can walk now."

Participation in the Bone Builders program is free; instructors are RSVP volunteers, and the weights used by participants are provided via a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health's Board on Aging, Lenius noted.

Bone Builders groups can be started in any community served by Mahube, as long as there is a volunteer instructor willing to go through the necessary training, and a space for the group to exercise.

Though the exercises are designed for those age 50 and older, "We don't make age a requirement," Lenius said.

For more information, call Karen Lenius at 218-847-1385, or send e-mail to

Silver Sneakers

The Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center has been a host site for the Silver Sneakers senior fitness program since 2006. In that time, participation at the local site has grown to 512 people, said Wolf.

A variety of health insurance companies offer Silver Sneakers as part of their regular insurance coverage. Besides free membership at any participating fitness center, which includes free access to all fitness equipment and classes offered, the program also includes monthly social gatherings for its members, and special classes geared toward older adults.

At the DLCCC, Wolf said, there are three certified Silver Sneakers instructors who offer classes in muscular strength and range of movement (MSROM); yoga stretching; and aquatic fitness.

The MSROM classes are currently offered every Tuesday and Thursday at 10:30 a.m.; the Yoga Stretch classes meet at 9:45 a.m. every Monday and Wednesday; and the Silver Splash aqua fitness classes meet five days a week, Wolf said.

There is an Aqua Tone class that runs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9:30 a.m., and an Aqua Light class that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m., he added.

Though participation in the Silver Sneakers program itself is limited to those aged 65 and older, the classes are open to anyone who would like to participate, Wolf said.

Besides the certified instructors, there is also a specially trained Silver Sneakers advisor at the DLCCC who will introduce new participants to the program and help them get started.

According to the official website at, other program benefits include health education seminars and member-only access to online support that can help you lose weight, quit smoking or reduce your stress.

And even if you do not currently qualify for Silver Sneakers membership, Wolf noted, many health plans offer reduced premiums for fitness center enrollment as part of their coverage, and some employers offer to pay a portion of membership fees.

For more information, contact Brent Wolf at 218-844-4221, ext. 118, or send e-mail to

Healthy Alternatives

The Healthy Alternatives program offered by Essentia Health St. Mary's Senior Living Services is a senior wellness program designed for community members aged 55 and older.

The program includes a variety of exclusive, "members only" benefits and opportunities, said Healthy Alternatives program coordinator Sue Braun.

"The program was originally designed to help seniors and disabled people who were unable to take proper care of their feet and toenails," Braun said.

Foot care is a particularly important part of maintaining senior health, Braun noted, as problems with the feet can be the first sign of more serious medical conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, and nerve or circulatory disorders.

"Healthy feet are critical for diabetics," Braun added, because common foot problems such as corns, blisters and ingrown toenails can lead to serious infections for those with diabetes.

In addition to monthly foot care clinics at 14 locations throughout Becker County, Healthy Alternatives now offers a variety of other benefits as well, Braun added.

Community discount programs are offered to Healthy Alternatives members by a number of local dental, optical, chiropractic, medical equipment and specialized transportation service providers, as well as pharmacies and fitness centers.

There are also several program-sponsored activities such as Senior Shopping Days at the Washington Square Mall, holiday letter writing and signup for spring cleaning services offered to seniors as part of the United Way's annual Day of Caring volunteer event.

Members enjoy other specialized services, including health insurance claims assistance and notary public services, and can take part in a variety of support groups for those living with Alzheimer's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and cardiac rehabilitation, to name a few. Please call 218-847-5611 for specific dates and times.

In addition, Healthy Alternatives hosts a Membership Fair each October that includes a variety of wellness screenings for things such as blood pressure, blood sugar and oxymetry (measuring the oxygenation of the blood's hemoglobin).

For more information about the Healthy Alternatives program, please contact Essentia Health St. Mary's senior living counselor Sue Braun at 218-847-0894.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454