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Helping seniors stay fit

The Baltimore Sun

After taking a stress test recently and not performing as well as she would have liked, 72-year-old Margaret Cunningham was ready for a change.

Cunningham joined the Parkville Senior Center and began participating in its exercise classes. And now she is looking forward to using some new equipment there.

"I intend to take full advantage of the new fitness center," the Windsor Mill resident said. "I'm really excited to get started."

She was among the many seniors at the center yesterday for the opening of the fitness center. It is the sixth such facility to open in a county senior center in recent years, and officials from the Baltimore County Department of Aging plan to open two more by February.

Experts in senior issues say Baltimore County was in the forefront of a movement to improve fitness offerings for seniors when it began developing senior fitness centers. The centers are seen as a way to attract baby boomers, who began turning 60 last year, to senior programming.

The first fitness center in a county senior center opened in Cockeysville in 2003. Since then, fitness centers have opened in senior centers in several counties.

Membership at the senior centers in Baltimore County is growing, officials said.

"Walk into that center any day of the week, and there is a line of people waiting to get in because the center is full of seniors working out," Arnold J. Eppel, director of the county's Department of Aging, said, referring to the Cockeysville center.

Sandra Ditto, director of the Parkville Senior Center, said that word of the fitness facility helped encourage more than 60 seniors to sign up recently, and she said center officials expect as many as 200 to join the fitness facility.

Seniors who use the fitness center must be members of the senior center, and they pay an extra fee that works out to about a dollar a day, officials said.

The fitness center is equipped with two flat-screen televisions, treadmills, stationary bikes and lifting machines. Eppel said that the "senior-friendly" equipment would help seniors improve strength training, flexibility, range of motion and cardiovascular health.

Yesterday, representatives from the Department of Aging and Towson University, as well as Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and other elected officials, participated in an opening ceremony and a tour of the new facility.

The Parkville Senior Center Council raised $25,000 for the center through donations, many of them coming from senior center members. The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation contributed an equal amount.

Students from Towson University will staff the fitness center and teach the seniors how to use the equipment. Marlene Riley, clinical associate professor in the department of occupational therapy and occupational science at Towson, said that one of the goals of Baltimore County's senior fitness centers is to maintain a level of quality health care for seniors after they've received care from hospitals and physical therapists.

"Right now, a lot of older adults go to outpatient physical therapy and then once they reach their potential, they're discharged," Riley said. "What we'd like to do is strengthen that link to the community so that if they're discharged from a formal medical program, they can come here and be more likely to be compliant because they are among friends and a support system."

James Heywood said he looks forward to coming to the Parkville Senior Center every day.

"Where could a person go today to have anything any better than this? You can't beat it," Heywood, 91, said.

Rose Pretza, 76, said that the community center is her "second home."

"I call it my second home because I love it here. I live by myself, so I enjoy coming here," Pretza said. "I'm excited about the new fitness center and the new bikes and treadmills. I just need to learn how to use the darn things."

The center's staff will create an individual exercise plan for each senior. Before and after each workout, staff members will take the seniors' pulse and blood pressure readings.

"There's something for everyone, from the chair-level person who can't really do much movement to someone who can get on an exercise bike," Riley said.

Although she has been a member of the senior center for only a month, Cunningham said that she has noticed results from the exercise classes. Now that the fitness center is available, she's eager to work with Towson students toward her fitness goal.

"The staff here has the expertise to work with older people, and they know what we're capable of," she said.

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