Fitness: Highmark finds seniors really benefit from Silver Sneakers

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Marilyn Friedman, 72, has been attending Silver Sneakers classes at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill three times a week since the classes were first offered there in March 2004.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Marilyn Friedman, of Squirrel Hill, tosses a ball with one hand during a Silver Sneakers Cardio Circuit class at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill.
Click photo for larger image.

"I've seen big differences in how I feel and how flexible I am," Ms. Friedman said. "I have more strength and endurance."

"It's a nice workout," agreed Dr. Harold Binstock, 87, a retired physician, another who has been with the program since its inception. He attends classes at least three times a week.

Seniors like these who take part in the Silver Sneakers program also are making Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield feel better. A recent Highmark study indicated that senior citizens, those over 65, who are in the program use 30 percent fewer health services than seniors who are not.

Highmark is especially fond of seniors who attend four or more classes a week, said Dr. Judith Black, Highmark's medical director for senior products.

Health care costs have been rising so fast that the most health insurance companies can reasonably hope for in most circumstances is to slow the rate of growth. But the health care costs for the most active of Silver Sneakers members were actually lower than they had been the year before, Dr. Black said.

"It surprised me," she said.

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. Each lasts about an hour.

The classes are offered at 170 health clubs and community centers in Pennsylvania, 43 in Allegheny County.

Seniors enrolled in Highmark managed care programs get free health club memberships. (Highmark pays the membership fee for them.) This entitles seniors to use all the facilities in addition to the Silver Sneakers classes. The swimming pool at the Jewish Community Center is a big draw, sponsors of the program there say. There are 1,450 Silver Sneakers enrollees at the center in Squirrel Hill; 2,100 at the South Hills facility.

Seniors not enrolled in Highmark programs have to pay for their own health club memberships, but at most locations can take the Silver Sneakers classes for no additional charge. "It's up to the local club, but most of them let them do it," said Denise Grabner, a spokeswoman for Highmark.

Highmark's one-year study was of 2,382 members in SecurityBlue, its Medicare Advantage HMO. The group represented 20 percent of all Highmark Silver Sneakers participants. They were compared with a control group of seniors of similar age and health conditions who do not participate.

A separate survey indicated 85 percent of Silver Sneakers participants described their health as good, very good, or excellent. Of those suffering from arthritis, 37 percent reported less pain.

Only 14 percent of seniors eligible for the program take part in Silver Sneakers, Highmark said.

Dr. Black said she wants to expand that number, especially for seniors who are suffering from diabetes.

Exercise is especially beneficial for diabetes sufferers, she said. People with diabetes also tend to have other ailments, such as hypertension, conditions which also are improved with exercise.


Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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