Four years ago, Andrew Dancy, 80, received a card in the mail advertising a free gym membership through his Medicare provider, Humana, and the Silver Sneakers Fitness Program. Dancy, who had never belonged to a gym, absentmindedly added the mailer to a stack of papers on a kitchen shelf.

A few months later, after his wife of 52 years died, Dancy was wandering around the house when he saw the edge of the card sticking out of the pile.

"I pulled the card out, saw that it wasn't expired and thought, 'Well, I guess I'll give this a try,' " Dancy says. "I must have kept that card for a reason."

After a brief tour of the YMCA near his home in Cicero, Illinois, just outside Chicago, Dancy began attending Silver Sneakers group fitness classes and exercising in the center's upstairs weight room. It wasn't easy, Dancy says, but after a few visits, he was hooked.

For Many, It's the First Time

Silver Sneakers is just one of the many programs aimed at the growing senior fitness market. The company partners with more than 40 Medicare health plans and Medicare Supplement Providers nationwide, which then offer the program to their members at no additional cost aside from their premiums, says Tricia Grayson, director of external communications for Silver Sneakers.

The average age of participants is 73, and 57% of those say they have never had a gym membership before joining, says Jennifer Fitzgerald, Silver Sneakers' account manager. After joining, 68% of members say they are exercising for 30 minutes at a time, three or more days per week.

In a study published in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that regular use of Medicare-sponsored health club benefits was associated with lower long-term health care costs.

Researchers determined that Silver Sneakers members who went to the gym two or more times a week over two years averaged at least $1,252 less in health care costs than those who visited a gym less than once a week over the same period.

"The insurance industry and other large organizations are focusing much more energy on preventive maintenance like this," says Cheryl Green, director of fitness and wellness at the Pav YMCA in Berwyn, Illinois, where Dancy works out.

"Seniors who exercise often don't need to go to the doctor as much. They can come here and spend time with their peers, and then they feel better able to do things like grocery shop for themselves. They're also more committed to the program because they realize how precious their quality of life is."

Although the Silver Sneakers Fitness Program has been around since the early 1990s, interest has been increasing steadily in recent years, Grayson says. In the past year, enrollment in the program grew by 32%, and participation also rose by 25%, she says. "We expanded into 24 new markets in 2008 and 27 new markets in 2007."

Personal trainers are taking notice, says Janie Clark, president of the American Senior Fitness Association, which specializes in education and certification for senior personal trainers. "When we started in the early 1990s, personal training for anyone was still very rare, and it was basically unheard of for seniors," Clark says. "Now we're getting calls from senior centers and gyms, clamoring for specialized trainers and information about the correct activity choices, equipment and recruitment."

Several factors are behind the shift, Clark says. For one, research has demonstrated the importance of regular exercise for seniors.

"Twenty years ago, personal trainers were afraid to do any kind of real, strenuous training with older adults," she says. "They were so cautious that the exercises they were doing were often not even effective."

Now, after much-needed research, Clark says, it is more widely known that strength training improves seniors' cardiovascular health and can help prevent falls. As older adults become better educated about the benefits of exercise, they also seek out programs on their own, Clark says.

"They want to be independent for as long as they can be, and they know that physical fitness is a big part of that."

Something to Look Forward To

Staying independent was a motivating factor for Dancy, who says he has increased strength and mobility after three years of frequent exercise. Now he wakes up before the sun rises just so he can be waiting when the fitness center opens its doors at a quarter to six. He is at the YMCA for an hour and a half each day, seven days a week, he says.

"It's something I look forward to," says Dancy, who also enjoys the social benefits of going to the gym. "It got me out of the house and now, I feel like I can get around easier and faster than a lot of people who are quite a bit younger than me. I feel like a spring chicken."

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