Silver Sneakers set pace for seniors

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What's the best-kept secret in Pittsburgh's suburbs?

It's definitely not the Silver Sneakers exercise program for senior citizens, which operates at more than 40 health clubs and community centers across Allegheny County.

The Silver Sneakers program at the South Hills Jewish Community Center on Kane Boulevard in Scott, for instance, has more than 2,300 members. It's the largest enrollment in the Pittsburgh area and the second largest in Pennsylvania, according to Lillian Fitch, senior account manager for Healthways, which markets the program all over America.

Silver Sneakers is a series of exercise programs designed specifically for senior citizens. They focus on improving strength, mobility and cardiovascular health. The classes are designed for different levels of fitness.

Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield sponsors the Silver Sneakers in Western Pennsylvania through a variety of health care plans -- Security Blue, Freedom Blue and Medigap Blue. Seniors enrolled in Highmark managed care programs get health club memberships for free at places where the Silver Sneakers classes are offered.

"The JCC in the South Hills offers all four of our class formats: Muscular Strength and Range of Motion; Yoga Stretch; Silver Splash (aquatic) and Cardio Circuit," Ms. Fitch pointed out. "Part of their success may be attributed to their wide array of programming."

She added: "The JCC does an amazing job of not only offering high-quality fitness programming but also offering fun and creative social events, such as dance contests."

Muscular Strength and Range of Motion includes mostly seated exercises but also stand-up "heel snaps" accompanied by "either snapping your fingers or quacking," said Bonnie Livingston, senior adviser to the JCC's Silver Sneakers who leads many of the sessions. The seniors in this format also use light weights and a rubber ball between their thighs, ankles and behind the back for a relaxing massage.

Cardio Circuit is the most physically demanding format, Ms. Livingston said. It is a standing class alternating segments with non-impact cardio work with strength and flexibility exercises.

"We don't sit until the end of the program, when we do our stretches." It also involves three-pound weights and resistance bands -- those stretchy strips in differing colors.

Ms. Livingston advises her clients to try this format at least once. Goals are improved posture and breathing and strengthening core muscles. "Our true goal is flexibility and fluidity of the spine. We use our shoulders for everything we do in modern society."

YogaStretch is designed for flexibility, balance, lower body strength and general well being.

SilverSplash is a group water fitness class designed to increase agility, range of motion and cardiovascular conditioning. No swimming skill is required. In one Splash group is a woman who is deaf. For her and the others in the water, Ms. Livingston employs a technique called plyometrics, or "explosive moves" -- large exaggerated motions so that everyone can see the exercise.

Typically, Sneakers attend a class two or three times a week, "depending on their physical condition," Ms. Livingston said.

Certified in teaching both group exercise and personal training, she pointed out that the Silver Sneakers organization also required her to complete its training as well.

What is so surprising about the Silver Sneaker success at the JCC is that the center signed on only three years ago, in 2004. The membership reflects the same ethnic and religious diversity as the South Hills itself.

"Our Silver Sneakers population is fairly young, as such groups go," Ms. Livingston said. "Generally, they are in the low to mid-70s."

Some of the success of the program can be attributed to the very large senior population throughout Western Pennsylvania. Another reason, Ms. Livingston believes, "is that other facilities are only fitness centers. We are a community center."

For more information on Silver Sneakers, go to or call 1-800-295-4993.

Joel Roteman is a freelance writer.


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