ACCIDENT, Md. -- Not long ago, Sally Schwing had little time for organized senior activities and no interest in joining a health club. Then a doctor prescribed exercise and the 68-year-old homemaker discovered that bench presses had replaced bingo at her local senior center.
The Flowery Vale Health and Fitness Center, where Schwing is a regular, has 59 active members in rural western Maryland. Once a conventional senior center, today it mirrors changes occurring in many communities where retirees are embracing the benefits of exercise and rejecting cards and bingo.
"It is a trend and it is something that senior centers around the country are focusing on, especially as they are trying to appeal to younger seniors, people 55 and over," said Scott Parkin, a spokesman for The National Council on the Aging.
Chicago's Department on Aging, for instance, provides free fitness and strength training classes twice a week at 48 locations around town. The city's expanding network of senior centers offers daily fitness and exercise classes with personal trainers and modern fitness equipment.
Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging, said the trend is accelerating as senior centers, retirement communities and assisted-living centers add equipment and staff to serve a group he says health clubs have largely ignored.
"Part of the reason the fitness and health clubs today don't attract a large percentage of the older market is, generally speaking, the environment tends to be very intimidating and the programs and services really are geared toward the younger adult rather than the older adult," Milner said. His organization, based in Vancouver, B.C., advocates physical activity to help prevent illness and reduce health-care costs.
Just 30 percent of private health clubs offered senior programming in 2002, but more are focusing on cardiac rehabilitation, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and arthritis, said Brooke MacInnis, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
"The health-club industry as a whole is very much aware of the senior set as a sort of a major market for potential membership," she said.
Experts say regular exercise can lower blood pressure, increase strength and stamina, enhance flexibility, and improve balance and coordination. A 1994 Tufts University study showed that even at age 98, intense training can significantly reverse a loss of strength.
The benefits of physical training aren't lost on Schwing, who joined the former Flowery Vale Senior Citizen Center and started exercising regularly as part of her physical therapy after knee surgery in 2001. She has since lost 55 pounds and has postponed an operation to replace the arthritic knee.
"This is kind of like a miracle for me," Schwing said. "Somebody told me in church that I smile now. I'm not in pain all the time."
Schwing, whose only exercise used to be walking and housework, said she never considered joining a private health club. "I'm sure that even if I had the funds, I would have been intimidated," she said.
But at the Flowery Vale fitness club, which charges seniors $15 a month, she and her peers have learned to use treadmills, stationary bikes, resistance machines and free weights besides their thrice-weekly aerobic workouts.
"I was really hesitant of a lot of things and would not really join in. Now I'm not too afraid of anything," Schwing said.
Center director Elaine Kackley, a certified personal trainer, created an exercise program to help 70-year-old Dot Bowser relieve her depression and restore her appetite after heart surgery nearly two years ago. The result: Bowser has gained about 15 pounds and no longer feels tired all the time.
"The doctors, when they found out I was doing the exercise, they were well pleased with that. Every time I go to see them, they ask if I'm still doing the exercise," she said.
For more than 15 years, Flowery Vale was a place where seniors played cards, ate lunch and heard presentations on health care, nutrition and services for the elderly.
"But in this day and age, people aren't supporting the meal programs like they used to, but they will support a fitness center," said Veronica Padmos, coordinator of Older Americans Act programs at the Garrett County Area Agency on Aging.
Flowery Vale and its equipment - some donated, some purchased with a grant from the state Department of Aging - take up half the gymnasium in the old school building in Accident, population 350.
Kathy Cooke, coordinator for the Charles County Area Agency on Aging in southern Maryland, made a similar discovery. She said fitness classes far outdraw bingo, and demand for the centers' lunches is declining. "A lot of our seniors will pack their lunch or bring in yogurt or fruit," she said.
Cooke said bingo, once a mainstay at the centers, may eventually be cut to just one day a week.
"That used to be the big thing. The seniors would come to the centers, they would work puzzles, they would play bingo and they would socialize. Now they come in to take classes and then go back out and take part in community activities - and that's growing as baby boomers are aging."