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Where they fit in

Times Staff Writer

WILLIE WORTHAM finishes up her set of chest presses and easily glides off the weight machine, ready to tackle another. Told she looks in great shape, with perfect posture and a steady gait, Wortham replies, “Yes, for a 91-year-old lady.”

At this gym, she doesn’t stand out so much as fit in.

Nifty After Fifty is a small, independent gym in Whittier specifically for middle-agers and beyond. It offers easy-to-operate pneumatic weight machines; comfortable, low-impact cardio equipment; yoga and tai chi classes; licensed physical therapy; balance training and even nonexercise programs such as a driving simulation course, dances and movie nights.

To the growing list of niche gyms -- for women, children and men -- comes gyms for the older set. The market is vast though largely untapped. Many older people who want to stay fit have had little interest in rubbing spandex with a younger, iPod-toting crowd at large gyms. As such, they’ve mostly been relegated to senior center programs, adult school classes or the odd session at a gym or YMCA.

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“People walk into bigger gyms and see a younger clientele doing intense exercise, and that’s sort of an intimidation factor,” says Michael Rogers, an exercise physiologist and research director of the Center for Physical Activity and Aging at Wichita State University.

The new niche gyms and specialized programs in larger clubs offer a healthy dose of mostly moderate-intensity exercise in a comfortable, low-pressure environment, often with a specially trained staff.

Employees at these gyms and programs, says Rogers, are more likely to understand that some conditions, such as arthritis, call for specific types of workouts.

Among the gyms and programs wooing an older clientele is Club 50 Fitness, a new franchise of Curves-like circuit-training gyms based in Reno and begun in 2003. The chain boasts about 50 clubs across the country, with more to come (one is in Yorba Linda, another is due to open in Ventura).

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Silver Sneakers fitness classes, a for-seniors program started in 1992 (free through some Medicare health plans), are in more than 1,200 gyms and YMCAs nationwide. Bally Total Fitness has them in 45 clubs nationwide and will add 22 soon. (About 23 Southern California clubs offer it now.) About 50 of the 600 or so Gold’s Gyms offer the program, with four in Southern California. Even some larger independent gyms have special senior programming.

“We’ve seen [niche gyms for seniors] grow from one or two facilities 10 years ago to probably a few hundred now,” with a big push in the last three years or so, says Colin Milner, chief executive of the Vancouver, Canada-based International Council on Active Aging, a membership organization concerned with healthy aging.

Barbara Aton would probably rather skip exercise altogether than set foot in a warehouse-size building filled with complicated machines and loud dance music. The 76-year-old Nifty After Fifty member from La Habra Heights says of mainstream clubs: “I don’t want to change clothes and run around in one of those suits.”

In fact, it’s not unusual to see gym members here wearing comfortable street clothes -- stretchy pants and tops with sneakers, plus makeup, jewelry and carefully coiffured hair.

Such informality fits in with founder Dr. Sheldon Zinberg’s philosophy that a gym should be welcoming and comfortable. He even limits the occupancy to about six or seven members at a time -- they come by appointment and are supervised by two or three trainers.

The retired gastroenterologist, a fit, trim 73 himself, discovered the significance of regular exercise when former patients enrolled in senior-friendly strength training classes -- and subsequently reported fewer hospitalizations, greater muscle strength and more ease in climbing stairs and walking faster, he says.

It convinced him to open gyms that would specifically serve seniors. Two earlier versions of Nifty After Fifty were part of his former medical group, which was sold this year. The current incarnation has been open only a few months and has about 200 members ranging in age from late 40s to 90-plus. He plans to open two more gyms by January and to eventually add a nutrition program.

“If you look at the older population,” he says, “there are two observations you can make. They’re either going to die or they’re going to become frail. You can maybe postpone dying and you can definitely postpone frailty by appropriate exercise.”

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His goal is not to make all members into master-level athletes but to vastly improve their quality of life: “We can make them better drivers, allow them to open a bottle of Snapple, as well as make them better tennis players,” he says. “They don’t have to go into an assisted-living facility.”

Aton has been going to the gym for a little more than two months and says she’s already more fit.

“I have more energy, and my clothes are starting to fit better,” she says. Diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease years ago, she was finding 10 minutes on her home treadmill tough; now she’s up to 20 minutes and sometimes works out twice a day. “I feel stronger and have a lot more stamina,” Aton says.

Plenty of research supports the benefits of exercise for the elderly. A 2002 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that those who went through a six-month home-based physical therapy program had less functional decline over time, compared with a control group that received only an educational program. A study published in the British Medical Journal in 1997 found a link between exercise and a reduced risk of falls, which often result in hip fractures.

But there is more to getting older people in shape than simply pointing them in the direction of a machine. Thorough medical screenings and qualified supervision are essential -- some may not only be out of shape, but also have arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, lung disease, cancer, diabetes or other conditions.

What’s key is the expertise of the trainers and how well they relate to older individuals, says Arthur Weltman, director of the exercise physiology program at the University of Virginia who also sits on the American College of Sports Medicine’s Strategic Health Initiative on Aging. “Then you’ll have somebody who knows the importance of doing different exercise prescriptions for different people.”

This attention to senior fitness will only grow, Weltman says. “We’re going to have a bigger proliferation of healthier older individuals relative to any time in our history. Medicine has gotten better and people are living longer, and they have more disposable income than generations past. They want to live a healthier, longer life and there is going to be a need to serve these folks.”

Rudy Cervantes pedals a recumbent stair-stepper as he talks about what his few weeks at Nifty After Fifty has accomplished so far. “Since I’ve been coming here, my balance is better,” says the 76-year-old Cervantes, who sports corduroy pants, a white button-down shirt and oversize glasses. “I can put on my clothes without even holding on to a table. I can bend down easier, and I’ve lost weight too. I can tie my shoes. To me, that’s a big deal.”

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jeannine.stein@latimes.com


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