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Reaching out to the Whole Community with a Comprehensive Older Adult Exercise Program

Colwell, Steve

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: March 2010 - Volume 14 - Issue 2 - p 33-34
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181d1993f
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In Brief

PROGRAM OVERVIEW

Fitness programs and classes for older adults are not a recent novelty; many senior centers, community centers, retirement communities, YMCAs, and larger fitness clubs have them. Classes are offered in everything from light aerobics and aquatics to balance training and tai chi. Generally, there is cost involved to belong to the facility providing the classes, and each class usually emphasizes one or, at the most, two aspects of fitness. How about a program that incorporates all the major elements of total fitness - aerobic, strength, flexibility, and balance, plus a strong social component, and costs only $1 per class, plus an annual fee of $15?

Enter Striders, a community walking and exercise program based in Spokane, WA, and Coeur d'Alene, ID, which has served hundreds of people during the past 15 years. Striders began as an initiative to offer mall walkers a more comprehensive fitness program and to get more of the older adult population involved in exercise. With the support of several local businesses as sponsors, we started 1-hour strength, flexibility, and balance classes in the center court of Silver Lake Mall and began classes before the stores opened in the morning. After a slow beginning, as skeptical walkers warmed up to the idea, class size grew to an average of 40.

Classes entail a full-body warm-up either moving in place to music or doing a brisk walk in a circle. Strength exercises are done with four levels of latex bands. Participants use whichever is appropriate for their age and condition. Ages of participants range from about 55 to 95 years. As people become stronger, they are encouraged to move to the next strength level. All major muscle groups are worked, usually two sets for each, 12 to 14 reps. Sometimes, the instructor will incorporate brief aerobic moves such as walking, jogging in place, or the grapevine, in-between strength exercises. The last segment involves balance exercises and stretching, which again works all major body parts.

Photo courtesy of Steve Colwell.

WORKING WITH SHOPPING MALLS AND BUSINESSES

Obviously, mall programs such as the one started in Coeur d'Alene can take place only with the support of mall management. Silver Lake Mall supported our project as a community service but also because it was a way to bring more of the community in to shop. Soon, two Spokane malls, which were part of the same commercial group as the Silver Lake Mall, were introduced to the program and invited us to initiate programs. In all three cases, the malls' contributions to the effort allowed us to use their center court space for classes and periodically to put up posters advertising the classes. As with any business, the level of support ranged from very enthusiastic to mediocre, depending upon the management personnel.

What began as an experiment turned out to be an ongoing expanding program as participants kept returning to the classes and bringing new people. With expansion, financial sponsors needed to be recruited to cover the costs of printed materials, instructor fees, and a modest stipend for an overall coordinator. It would take more than the goodwill of the malls to keep it going. Businesses such as hospitals and those that sold products or services to older adults - retirement communities, hearing aid and optical businesses, pharmacies, and medical products, for example - were contacted. Many responded at various levels of support, and as with the malls, did it as community service and to some extent out of self-interest. Three levels of sponsorship were established - gold $800, silver $400, and bronze $200 - all paid annually. Obviously, it has been important to stay in regular contact with the sponsors and to continue soliciting new ones as not all sponsors renew after one year. In some cases, the sponsorship support is "in kind," for example, the use of a facility at a low rate for classes or meetings.

There were two main benefits to soliciting the support of businesses apart from making the program financially viable. One was to make it possible for many older adults in this part of the country who are on fixed incomes to be involved in a regular exercise program, and most of the participants, especially in North Idaho, were at that level. Even in Spokane where the economic level is somewhat higher, it eliminated the excuse that they didn't want to participate in an organized program because of the cost. Second, interaction with sponsors worked to disseminate information about Striders to more of the community.

ENHANCING THE WALKING PART OF THE PROGRAM

The classes were covering three of the important facets of physical fitness, but what about cardio? How could participants be encouraged to walk further and more often to enhance cardiovascular health? We decided to give awards to participants for achieving certain mileage levels every few months. Businesses, customarily restaurants, were approached. Many responded with certificates for Striders who attained certain milestones - 100 miles, 200, 400, 600, and so on. Many of the participants walked in the malls, especially during the winter. Distances around the inside perimeter of the malls were calculated so that walkers could know mileages by the number of laps covered. Others walked outside using pedometers or by known distances in their neighborhoods. At this time, there are 33 businesses participating in the awards program. Interestingly, although the prizes have been a benefit to those on low fixed incomes, most Striders have said that awards are simply fun, and that with or without them, they were already becoming motivated to walk more.

SOCIAL BENEFITS

It's well known that successful aging includes being connected to friends and family. One of the most common comments from participants has been the social benefit. For example, one Strider wrote, "the program has improved my mental and social well-being." A community within a community was already taking place when it was decided to initiate awards breakfasts, usually held at a sponsor's restaurant. Over coffee and muffins, awards are handed out, top mileage achievers cheered, birthdays and anniversaries celebrated, while friendships are nurtured even to the point of marriage in a couple of cases. In addition, group outings have been organized, for example, a cruise from Seattle up the coast to Alaska. A Striders newsletter is distributed three times a year, with articles on fitness and wellness and information about individual participants, all with the intent of keeping connected.

COMMUNITY OUTREACH

Striders has always been nonprofit, but in 2000, it officially became part of Prevention, Education, and Development programs for successful aging. Because of its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and because of its emphasis on older adult health, Striders was able to obtain support from local media. The effect has been that the program reaches a far greater audience in the Inland Northwest than would have otherwise been achieved by simply catering to active Striders. Another example of outreach has been that participants volunteer for fundraisers for organizations such as Meals on Wheels and the local public television station.

HEALTH BENEFITS TO PARTICIPANTS

One of the reasons Striders is still going strong in its 15th year is the fact that participants are experiencing specific health improvements. There is a place at the bottom of the mileage tracking form to make comments on anything about the program, pro or con. As of 5 years ago, a stack of papers 3 inches high had accumulated with remarks from participants referring to physical and mental improvements, everything from lower cholesterol and blood pressure, to reduced symptoms of arthritis, to keeping osteoporosis and diabetes in check, to discarding pain medication, to being able to walk four miles instead of just one block. Specific evidence of results is not only gratifying but proves the effectiveness of a comprehensive fitness program for older adults. These testimonials have been important in recruiting sponsors, in speaking engagements, and in working with the media.

In summary, the various aspects of Striders evolved over time to its present-day viable program for older adults. It may be unique to the Spokane, North Idaho area, but there's no reason why a fitness professional who has an interest in senior fitness and has a background in organization and marketing could not develop a similar program in another city. Many malls have official or nonofficial walking programs. Why not take advantage of a built-in population who are already motivated to keep active? The professional approaching retirement years could do this out of the desire to simply give back to the community or he/she could use the Striders business model as a template for a nonprofit business.

© 2010 American College of Sports Medicine