Elderly getting in shape for fight against aging

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Lucille Ives likes to brag that she can lift 40 pounds on the weight machine.

"Rocks," she says, flexing her biceps and pounding on the muscle in the Cockeysville Senior Center's fitness room. "Rocks."

But it was more than the weights that drew the 78-year-old Timonium resident to the center's fitness room about a year ago. It was a need to take a break, even for a little while, from the depression that came with caring for a husband in the end stages of Alzheimer's disease.

"I would have gone completely bonkers if it hadn't been for this place," she said over the whir of stationary bikes and treadmills last week.

In Baltimore County, seniors are flocking to the Cockeysville center, where membership is up -- way up -- since a fitness center opened in a former classroom nearly a year and a half ago.

They are power walking on treadmills or lifting free weights. They are coming on the advice of doctors or friends, looking for better health or camaraderie or a way to get through the loss of a loved one. They are losing weight, lowering their blood sugar and finding themselves so fit they can cut their blood pressure medicine in half.

With fitness rooms in two senior centers -- a smaller one in the Liberty Senior Center opened nine months ago -- and six more on the way, Baltimore County is in front of a growing movement to improve fitness offerings for seniors, say experts in senior issues. They point to a need to find new ways to attract baby boomers, who will begin turning 60 next year, to senior programming.

"It's at that tipping point, where I can see it's just about to go mainstream," said Colin Milner, who heads the Vancouver, Canada-based International Council on Active Aging. "I think Baltimore [County] is ahead of the curve right now."

The county's Department of Aging is preparing to open two new fitness rooms in senior centers in Catonsville and Dundalk next month -- both funded with federal Older Americans Act money and bigger and more state-of-the-art than the first two. They say they want to add four more next year.

County officials are also awaiting County Council approval for a contract with Towson University's kinesiology department to run the sites, an arrangement they say will provide health education for seniors and internships for students.

"We have the space. We have the constituency, and we know it's a positive program," said Arnold J. Eppel, the director of the county's Department of Aging. "It's going to bring in a whole brand-new group of senior adults."

Not just a fitness class

Senior centers across the county have long held fitness classes, ranging from chair aerobics to yoga and t'ai chi. But far fewer can boast of full-fledged workout centers, including trainers who set fitness programs for everyone from healthy seniors looking to shed a few pounds to those recovering from strokes and heart problems.

"I think we know from many sources how important it is for seniors to be active and push back that time when they will become frail," said Jean W. Roesser, secretary of the state Department of Aging. "Even older seniors are doing this. We've got 80- and 90-year-olds doing remarkable things."

Chicago, considered a pioneer and model in the senior fitness center effort, has several workout hubs in its senior centers. Even Garrett County, home to fewer than 6,000 seniors, according to the 2000 census, has a busy seniors-only health and fitness center in Accident -- even though the senior center that shared the building closed for lack of interest, said Veronica Padmos, who coordinates senior programming for the Western Maryland county.

Variety of offerings

Across metropolitan Baltimore, county officials detail a range of fitness offerings for seniors: Some offer classes only, while others have workout rooms of varying sizes. Some share workout sites with other government agencies.

In Harford County, seniors at two of the county's four senior centers have access to fitness rooms, one through a shared building, the other through an arrangement with recreation and parks, according to an official there.

In Howard County, officials say they are getting ready to break ground on a community center in western Howard that will include a senior center and a fitness center.

In Carroll County, officials say they received donated equipment and sent most of it to Westminster's senior center, which had the most room. A fitness room opened in that center in October, said Patty Whitson, an official with the county's Bureau of Aging.

Anne Arundel County has fitness classes, but nothing like what Baltimore County offers, said Charles Lawrence, assistant director of that county's Department of Aging.

"It's certainly the way of the future with the younger seniors coming in," he said.

Baltimore County, with more than 140,000 residents age 60 and older as of the 2000 census, boasts the biggest senior population in Maryland. It was looking for ways to boost senior center membership when officials happened upon the fitness center idea.

The Cockeysville site, created through equipment donations and with the help of the senior center council, opened in August 2003 in a former classroom.

Five months later, after a local newspaper wrote about the new center, Cockeysville officials say, they signed up 100 people for senior center membership -- a prerequisite to use the fitness center -- in less than three weeks. About 85 percent of those who use the fitness room are new to the senior center, said Gloria Carney, the center's director.

There are about 180 active members who pay a small fee to work out, she said.

Seniors must get their doctor's approval to work out. Once a senior is ready to begin, the fitness center's director, Andrew Giordano, a specialist in older-adult fitness, creates an exercise plan and takes blood pressure and pulse readings before and after every workout.

'They get hooked'

Most days, the center, which is open four days a week, is at capacity. Seniors waiting for a turn on the treadmill might hop on a stationary bike or do some weightlifting -- or just catch up.

"Some of these people have never exercised in their life," said Giordano, a retired Baltimore police officer. "Once they get started, they get hooked on it. It's really inspirational."

Seniors say they like not having to worry about being self-conscious working out next to the "body beautifuls" in traditional gyms and that they enjoy being with others their own age -- a situation that has led to close friendships. Working out has given them more energy and made them feel healthier, they say.

"Seniors are looking for something to do. I think it's really important to keep them off the streets, so to speak," said Joe Pistritto, 72, of Baldwin as he walked the treadmill to the sounds of "Hooked on Classics." "The less you do, the less you want to do, so you deteriorate and end up in the hospital."

For Ives, Cockeysville's fitness center has been like a "big family. I got that feeling the instant I walked in here." She couldn't return fast enough, she said, after her husband died in July.

"Exercise is the most fabulous dose of medicine," she said.

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