Working out and having fun: Seniors drawn to the gym

Doug Rickerson, left, leads a water walking class at the Vashon Athletic Club. - Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo
Doug Rickerson, left, leads a water walking class at the Vashon Athletic Club.
— image credit: Natalie Johnson/Staff Photo

Think about working out at a gym, and many images spring to mind: a young man bench-pressing heavy weights, a sleek woman running on a treadmill, an endurance swimmer slicing through the water.

But at the Vashon Athletic Club (VAC), feats of athletic prowess are mixed with other inspiring scenes these days, in part because of a nationwide program that has begun to draw scores of seniors to the small gym south of town.

The SilverSneakers Fitness Program — offered by some insurance plans to people eligible for Medicare — provides seniors free membership to any participating fitness center across the country. On Vashon, nearly 200 seniors have signed up since VAC adopted the program in August, giving them access to all the club’s equipment, facilities and classes, including two tailored to SilverSneakers members.

“It’s preventative health care,” said Roy Haase, the coordinator of the program at VAC, “That’s really what it’s all about.”

Dr. Chris Davis works for the athletic club as a personal trainer, a position he took after a 34-year career as an emergency room physician, where he grew dispirited seeing patients with illnesses they could have prevented by making healthier lifestyle choices. He has high praise for the program.

“I think SilverSneakers is a monster home run,” he said. “I think it is the smartest, single most cost-effective step I have seen in my health career.”

For seniors, Davis noted, regular, moderate exercise brings many benefits. As people age, they lose flexibility and muscle mass — about 1 percent a year — and exercise helps mitigate those changes. Exercise also improves people’s cholesterol and triglyceride levels, reduces blood pressure, helps manage diabetes, delays dementia, improves depression and — what Davis calls the crown jewel of the benefits — helps with weight control. Not only do people burn calories when they exercise, Davis said, but moderate exercise curbs the appetite.

VAC owner Kevin Allman noted the program will bring in a bit of revenue to his small gym, but he said he pursued the partnership for other reasons.

“I’m in the business of making people healthy,” he said.

Nannette Dean, one of the teachers of a SilverSneakers class, remarked on the benefits some have achieved. One woman could hardly lift her feet off the floor while she was sitting in a chair when she began, and now she can march standing up. Another woman said she opened a peanut butter jar for the first time in five years.

“It’s fulfilling to watch them … improve so much,” she said.

When VAC started offering SilverSneakers, many seniors who were already members swapped their full-cost memberships for a free one through the program. More importantly, VAC staff say, many new people started coming, and several Island elders are now familiar faces at the club.

Lorrie Bruce, 71, had wanted to enroll in the water walking class with a friend but couldn’t afford it, she said. Through SilverSneakers, she joined the club in August and became a frequent participant in the water walking classes.

She has painful problems with her shoulders, she said, and can’t raise her arms very high. But she has found the class helpful in a variety of ways.

“It keeps my arms exercised anyway,” she said. “My whole body is a lot more flexible, and I’ve lost weight … I was tickled about that.”

She hastened to add that she was not sure if the class was solely responsible for her weight loss, which has been about 20 pounds.

“I didn’t even know it was happening until a skirt fell off,” she said.

Carol and Russ Brazill also joined the club through the SilverSneakers program and have been going to the water walking class three times a week since September. Russ, a former high school math teacher and track coach, said he had always thought he would enjoy belonging to the club and decided to do so when their Group Health insurance covered the costs. He still runs, he noted, but he is ready to get off the Vashon roads.

For his wife Carol, the need to exercise was more urgent. She had a stroke a year and a half ago and had to exercise to regain her balance. Group Health also pays for an exercise class at Ober Park they both attend, but the pool exercise has had notable benefits.

Her balance and strength have improved, she said, and she appreciates the camaraderie among the participants, some of whom also go to lunch once a month.

Doug Rickerson, a former football and swim coach who is nearing his 84th birthday, teaches the popular class. He has had one hip replaced and both knees, one of them twice. He said he does not do well on land anymore but enjoys the pool and water exercise. “You can’t beat it,” he said. “It saved me.”

While the pool is a popular place, several SilverSneakers members enjoy other aspects of the club.

Fresh from a workout on the club’s new cardio machines, Rick Skillman, 70, said he converted his VAC membership to a SilverSneakers membership because he wanted to support the effort at VAC.

“I think that it’s an excellent program for people who might be sedentary in their later years to help them get up and do something,” he said.

He had been going to the club once or twice a week, but plans now to go four to five times a week at his doctor’s suggestion.

“As I’m getting older, it is increasingly important for me to take care of my heart,” he said, noting he has a pacemaker and six cardiac stents.

SilverSneaker member Jim Coulson, 76, also exchanged his VAC membership for one with SilverSneakers, but he pays for sessions with Davis and fellow fitness trainer Jason Everett. He works with them because of some health challenges, including neuropathy in his feet, which makes him walk with a cane. He meets with one or the other twice a week.

He fell recently, he said, and before he was exercising, he would have been in a bad way and sore for a week. But he was sore for only a day.

“I am not an enthusiast,” he said. “The exercise, as much as I hate to admit it, it helps with recovery.”

As he talked about the benefits of exercise, a spark of humor was evident: “Does it help me feel any better? A little bit. Does it make my wife feel better? Yes. A lot.”

Davis noted that it is common for many people to begin an exercise program and then stop, sometimes from boredom, sometimes because they start with “too much élan,” as he put it, and then hurt themselves. He recalled the classic tale, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” noting that its wisdom also applies to seniors embarking on an exercise program.

“The sky is the limit if they take it slowly, gradually, intelligently,” he said.

Carol Ferch, 67, recommends the program to anyone who is eligible.

“I feel so joyous when I am there,” she said. “This SilverSneakers thing makes me regret I did not join the athletic club 10 years ago.”


To participate in SilverSneakers, seniors must be eligible for Medicare and have a health insurance plan that participates. On Vashon, participating plans are Group Health, Humana and United Healthcare, according to VAC owner Kevin Allman. For more information, call the Vashon Athletic Club at 463-5601 or see


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