Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Ice coated the Trinity Neighborhood Center parking lot in spots and it was a cold walk from cars to the entry doors.
As she waited in the hallway to greet and provide assistance to seniors preparing to get some exercise at a Senior Fitness & Fun class, Linda Grap, Director of Senior Health Partners, could be heard saying, “I can’t believe so many of them showed up with the roads being the way they are.”
Their presence on a winter morning in early February was proof to Grap that while these exercise class-goers may be older, they are a lot tougher and more engaged than many may give them credit for.
At the age of 86, Jeanette, who asked that her last name not be used, says she’s been coming to these exercise classes for more than two years. A resident of the Old Lakeview Neighborhood where the neighborhood center is located, Jeannette says she comes for the opportunity to socialize and exercise.
“I’m older and they just show you simple exercises to do,” she says. “I took two weeks off between Christmas and New Year’s and I knew I’d be stiff if I didn’t come back and do it.”
Three days a week, she can be found at Senior Fitness & Fun classes at Trinity or at an Eagle’s Lodge.
Jeannette was one of more than 40 seniors who took their seats on chairs inside a large room at Trinity to follow a nurse who took them through a series of exercises that included arm raises and leg lifts. The class began with a call to stand up, march in place, and those who could did.
As the class progressed, resistance bands and one-pound weights were introduced into the workout.
When she’s leading one of these classes, Susan VanderWeide, a clinical supervisor who works for Senior Health Partners, says she makes a point of telling participants that if their doctor has told them not to do something, they need to honor that and make adjustments to their workout.
“If they have high blood pressure, I tell them not to put their hands over their head,” VanderWeide says. “As exercise leaders, we’re watching everybody. We tailor the exercises to the group, but people have to self-monitor too. So, I will tell them, ‘If you can’t do 20 modified jumping jacks, try doing five.'”
Senior Fitness & Fun is offered through Senior Health Partners, located at the Battle Creek Family YMCA. It's a community partnership of Bronson Battle Creek; Senior Care Partners PACE; Calhoun County Senior Services; the YMCA; and Summit Pointe. Senior Fitness & Fun is one of many programs funded through the $3 million Calhoun County Senior Millage, which is up for renewal this year.
Hugh Gauss works out during a Senior Health Partners exercise class at the Trinity Neighborhood Center.
“Many counties in the state have a Senior Millage and most of the counties have a Commission on Aging,” says Helen Guzzo, Manager of Calhoun County Senior Services. “In Calhoun County we chose a model of funding community organizations instead providing services through government bureaucracy. We’re funding coordination and taking an advocacy role.”
The fitness program is just one example of how the Calhoun County Senior Services works for local residents. The $3 million millage funds 22 different programs “run by 10 trusted nonprofit organizations that supported the needs of 6,350 older adults in 2019,” Guzzo says. Among the nonprofits her organization partners with are the Community Action Agency which provides free transportation; Fountain Clinic which provides dental services and prescription drug assistance; and Habitat for Humanity which provides ramps for accessibility.
Jeannette says she has taken advantage of other programs and services offered, including Lunch & Learn which gives seniors access to experts who address a wide range of topics.
“If you don’t know it, someone will know it,” she says in reference to things like hip issues or hospice care services. “They always want to see what they can do to make your life better. Lots of speakers are from the hospital and they come and talk about various topics.”
Senior Fitness & Fun costs about $100,000 annually to operate and is free to any senior in Calhoun County, Guzzo says.
The classes are offered at no cost to participants. That cost, which works out to be $4 per participant, is covered by the Senior Millage. It's a “bargain,” Grap says, “when you look at the return on investment” and how the minimal cost to operate the exercise program results in hundreds of thousands of dollars in healthcare cost savings as seniors stay healthy longer.
The classes, which are offered at 13 locations throughout Calhoun County, incorporate movement that focuses on building strength, flexibility, balance, and aerobics. The exercises are drawn from a list established by the National Institutes of Health specifically for an aging population. Senior Fit & Fun instructors receive certification to lead these exercise programs.
“We all want to live our best life and fitness and exercise and socialization are all important parts of that, especially as we age. These classes also give us the ability to keep older adults engaged in community life,” Grap says. “The longer we have people contributing, it’s better for them and for us.”
A lesser-talked-about benefit is the savings in healthcare costs.
The cost of an emergency room visit resulting from a fall for someone on Medicaid could cost more than $30,000, Grap says, and she adds that falls are the top medical issue leading to older adults going into nursing homes.
“The healthier our clients can be, the lower the cost for care. One of the things these classes have shown is the reduced risk of preventable ER visits which saves all of us money,” Grap says. “We can show measurable benefits in healthy blood sugar levels, pulse rate, and oxygen levels. We know that all of those things contribute to a stronger mind and reduce the risk of dementia.
“Physical exercise is one of the things that increase brain volume. As we age our brains shrink. The only thing shown to reduce that is exercise.”
Strengthening dexterity exercises during a Senior Health Partners exercise class
In 2019, 487 seniors exercised 11,734 times at the 13 different locations, according to the 2019 Senior Services annual report. These seniors, all representing unique visits, exercised an average of 978 times per month at each of the sites.
Guzzo says Senior Health Partners always tries to partner with sites that don’t charge a fee to use their facilities. The fees that are charged are nominal, she says.
Class sizes average anywhere from 40 to 70 participants on any given day. Guzzo says the Kool Family Community Center has had as many as 90 in one class.
“The cool thing about exercise is that people become more vibrant and assertive and take better care of themselves. We had one lady come in and she was so excited because she could finally twist the cap off of a water bottle,” Grap says.
These are the types of successes that allow seniors to experience the ability to do more than they thought they could do, VanderWeide says.
A side benefit is that they will participate in other senior programs and socialize with each other, she says, citing examples like groups who will go out to lunch together.
The oldest person in Senior Fitness & Fun is 90 years old, Grap says.
“Our seniors represent all income spectrums, some have spent their whole life in poverty and some have been doctors, teachers, and nurses,” Grap says. “At one time they identified themselves by what they got paid to do and now they’re all in the same place together.”
With its demonstrable benefits and the positive reviews from current participants, Guzzo and Grap say the program has the capacity to reach many more older adults in Calhoun County.
“We have a total countywide population of 154,000 and 31,000 of these individuals are age 60 or older,” Guzzo says.
Grap says there are many reasons why seniors aren’t participating in the exercise program.
“They think they can’t do it. (They don't know that) these are not the exercises you may see people doing at the gym and we emphasize that these are exercises anyone can do,” Grap says. “Our statistics show that if we can get someone to come three times, they’re hooked forever.
“There are studies that show that it’s never too late to start exercising.”
One such study conducted in Scandinavian countries found that people over the age of 50 who started out by exercising for 15 minutes per day after never having done so before, experienced similar health benefits after one year to their counterparts who had been exercising their whole lives.
“Aging well means you need to move and exercise,” Guzzo says. “You either move it or lose it.”
Photos by John Grap. See more of his work here.