It’s a perfect Florida day. The birds soar high overhead in an electrical blue sky dotted with puffs of clouds as a breeze ruffles the palm trees around the pool.
But as the water aerobics instructor likes to say, the water in the pool is smoking.
“Dame gasolina (Give me some gas),” she shouts as the class, mostly seniors who take part in the SilverSneakers program, works its way through leg lifts, balancing poses and other exercises that would be difficult — if not impossible for some — to do on land.
“Un poquito más rápido (A little faster). Move the hips,” encourages the aqua-fit instructor in a class where the chatter is in English, Spanish and Spanglish.
Although class members are serious about the workout, there’s plenty of laughs as the group works its way through a 45-minute routine to the beat of pop hits, salsa and oldies at Miami-Dade County’s North Pointe Community Center, 7351 NW 186th St.
SilverSneakers is a perk that’s included in several Medicare Advantage and Medigap programs that are available in Florida. Under the nationwide program, which is designed to help Medicare beneficiaries stay physically active and socially engaged, members can join participating gyms and health facilities free of change.
They can take SilverSneakers classes that are specifically designed for active older adults and are kind to aging joints and muscles, or depending on their physical abilities, use weights and exercise equipment, swim laps and take part in the same classes as regular gym members do.
“We believe in people getting out and engaging in life,” said Richard Ashworth, president and chief executive of Tivity Health, the Tennessee-based corporation that is the parent company of SilverSneakers.
Almost two-thirds of SilverSneakers participants have multiple chronic conditions and almost half say they had no previous fitness center membership, according to the company.
The main thing, said Ashworth, is “understanding where they are” and offering programs that can accommodate people with a wide range of physical abilities. In designing fitness programs with a team of nutritionists, fitness instructors and gerontologists, SilverSneakers focuses on mobility, flexibility and core strength, he said.
SilverSneakers offered through many Medicare Advantage plans
In Florida, SilverSneakers memberships are included in plans offered by Aetna, AvMed, BayCarePlus, CarePlus, Devoted Health Plans, Florida Blue, Freedom Health, HealthSun, Humana, Optimum, Simply Healthcare, Ultima and WellCare.
Nationwide, some 16 million people are eligible for SilverSneakers benefits under their Medical Advantage plans. A few Medigap programs also include the benefit.
When Jorge Mendoza, an artist and retired public school art teacher, signed up for the Florida Blue Medical Advantage plan when he turned 65, he said he wasn’t even aware the SilverSneakers program was included.
“It was a great surprise,” said Mendoza, now a regular at the North Pointe aqua-fit class. On Saturdays his wife comes too.
More than 16,000 locations nationwide take part in the SilverSneakers program — from parks, community centers, and gyms to clubs such a LA Fitness and Planet Fitness, but during the Coronavirus pandemic not all are offering SilverSneakers classes. Medicare Advantage beneficiaries can check their eligibility online at www.silversneakers and find the nearest participating facilities by plugging in their zip codes.
First-time participants should call facilities they are interested in to see what is open, what is being offered and if there are any pandemic-related restrictions.
SilverSneakers pivots to online classes during pandemic
During normal times, Miami-Dade County offers SilverSneakers Flex programs at seven locations throughout the county but currently the only program that is operating is at North Pointe.
Before the pandemic, 150 to 200 people participated on a weekly basis in the SilverSneakers programs at the six other county locations. The three certified, insured SilverSneakers instructors rotated between classes offered at Country Village Park, Deerwood Bonita Lakes Park, Father Gerard Jean-Juste Community Center at Oak Grove Park, Goulds Park, Gwen Cherry Park and Westwind Lakes Park, said Allan Tavss, the active older adult coordinator for the county’s Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department.
He said it’s unclear when the other six facilities will be reopening. In the meantime, the SilverSneakers instructors are offering online classes. When the county facilities are open, the classes are free for SilverSneakers participants, but others can take part by paying a $2 fee.
Tavss is a big fan of SilverSneakers. “It’s fabulous. This gives us the ability to have programs that don’t cost the parks department any money,” he said.
SilverSneakers contracts with the Medicare Advantage plans and there are various arrangements for reimbursing the fitness facilities from paying them for each visit by a SilverSneakers participant to paying monthly stipends.
SilverSneakers members can attend a single fitness facility or join as many clubs as they wish. This means they can belong to a club near their home, take part in a program across town with their friends, use one center just for water activities or continue their exercise routines while away from home – all at no extra cost.
Blanca Hidalgo, 66, likes the flexibility of the program. “You can go here; you can go there,” she said. Before the pandemic, she used to travel to New Jersey to see family and often took part in SilverSneakers programs there.
“You really have no excuse to be a coach potato,” said Hidalgo, who attends the water aerobics class at North Pointe.
Changes brought on by the pandemic
The pandemic has brought changes to SilverSneakers programs in South Florida.
At North Pointe, for example, the aqua fit and SilverSneakers aerobics classes are limited to 12 people now, and some participants in the water program arrive as much as 45 minutes early to make sure they get one of the coveted spots in the classes that are offered twice daily on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and once on Saturday.
Participants wait in their cars until just before class begins and must wear masks until they enter the water. Everyone who has signed up must answer COVID-related questions and undergo temperature checks before they enter the pool deck.
Alper’s SilverSneakers program is popular
Before the pandemic, the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center in Kendall was getting as many as 2,000 visits by SilverSneakers participants each month.
In September, there were around 360 in-person visits, but the numbers have been steadily climbing since the JCC resumed its SilverSneakers program in June, said Juliana Kalish, the membership director.
“We have room for plenty more,” said Kalish. “Our members are feeling pretty safe about coming in.”
Among them is 90-year-old SilverSneakers member Donald Cooper who makes almost daily visits to the JCC weight room.
SilverSneakers participants at the JCC must make reservations online and by phone and class size is limited to 12 people. Use of other facilities at the JCC also is by reservation only.
The air in rooms where circuit training, chair exercise and cardio classes are held is cleaned by hepa-filters, masks are required, and exercisers are instructed to keep 10 feet apart.
A recent survey by Tivity Health showed that COVID-19-related stress and anxiety remain high for seniors. Respondents said they continued to exercise but not as much as before the pandemic.
Not all are comfortable with returning to the gym or in-person classes now, but others say it’s important because it provides daily structure in their lives, according to the survey.
Pool workouts help with flexibility
Susan Vega, who was a regular at North Pointe’s aqua-fit classes, said she’s still a little nervous about attending classes but comes to the pool to do her own workouts in the afternoon when there are fewer people in the water.
“I need this bad,” said Vega, who started taking SilverSneakers classes in August 2019, a month after she retired from a career in customer service. “I started because I needed exercise. With my arthritic knee (injured many years ago while skiing), I can’t run, I can ‘t do walking so the pool is great.
“It’s been very helpful. I have more energy; I feel more toned and it’s been very therapeutic,” she said.
For those who aren’t ready to return to in-person classes yet or can’t, SilverSneakers is offering live online classes and wellness workshops via Zoom. It now has more than 200 different classes in its video library and so far this year, its portal has received more than 1 million digital visits.
That’s all new for SilverSneakers, which didn’t offer digital programs before the pandemic. By May, said Ashworth, the new portal was up and running and the company found that the digital platform attracted a number of members who hadn’t tried SilverSneakers in-person offerings before.
The goal is to have SilverSneakers “interwoven with the way people lead their lives,” said Ashworth. “We’ve taken away all the reasons why you can’t do this.”
Although not everyone in the North Pointe aqua-fit class is a member of the SilverSneakers program, most are, and they swear by its health benefits.
When Norma Paracha, who will be 69 in May, first enrolled in SilverSneakers she said her weight had ballooned following surgery and she needed a walker to get into the pool.
Now she has lost 20 pounds and gets in and out of the pool using the ladder. “I like aqua fit, Zumba, chair exercise —everything,” she said. “The aquafit instructor makes you stretch your muscles, the warm-up and cool down helps and the music is excellent,” she said. “The thing is you must keep moving.”
Social connections, key to staying healthy
During normal times, members of the aqua-fit class often organize holiday parties and keep in touch outside the pool. It’s common for SilverSneakers members to get together for coffee after their workouts and socialize, said Ashworth. “There’s a really strong connection to the social side.”
And that is good for people’s health.
Social isolation, which plagues many modern-day seniors, increases the risk of premature death by 29 percent, according to Tivity. A study of 3,000 Medicare Advantage members showed that 20 percent fewer SilverSneakers members suffered from social isolation and 25 percent fewer from loneliness.
“It’s really health maintenance,” said Vega. “It’s smart on the part of Medicare Advantage programs if they keep us healthier. It’s a win, win, win situation.”
SilverSneakers research seems to bear her out. Members who attended classes had $2,144 lower average healthcare costs than non-enrollees after a single year in the program as well as significantly fewer impatient hospital admissions in the second year, according to Tivity Health.
Seniors who are stronger and fitter tend to have fewer falls, fewer infections and consequently fewer hospitalizations and doctor visits, said Ashworth.
Peer-reviewed studies done for the company show that the greatest opportunity to reduce costs and improve health is with beneficiaries who are diabetic or who suffer from depression.
Surveys about Covid-19 vaccine
When it comes to attitudes toward a COVID-19 vaccine, two surveys of 1,900 SilverSneakers members taken from July to September revealed a wait-and-see attitude toward the vaccine as well as 18 percent of seniors who said they didn’t plan to get it at all.
Ashworth said the 18 percent number is concerning if the United States hopes to ever achieve herd immunity. He said SilverSneakers planned to use its platform to push out vaccine information “to help members make the best decision on what is right for them.”
While 60 percent of respondents said they thought a vaccine was important for “new-normal” life, only 38 percent said they would be willing to take it immediately after it becomes available or within two months. Forty-four percent said they would be willing to take it three months to more than six months after it becomes available.
Contact Mimi Whitefield at [email protected] or on Twitter: @HeraldMimi