16-week EnhanceFitness program helps with balance, strength, arthritis

EnhanceFitness classes offered at local YMCAs bring many benefits, particularly for people with arthritis.
Published September 26 2017

There may be groans as well as grins in this exercise class, but the gains are undeniable.

For the past several weeks, a small group of people, mostly seniors with arthritis, have been testing themselves with a new program of exercises designed for just such aching joints: EnhanceFitness.

The classes are free for members of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA in Tampa and last 16 weeks. Nonmembers pay $48. Classes are offered at several of the Y's Tampa area locations and also in Pinellas and Pasco counties. (Costs may vary with location.)

Participants in the first 16-week class, which began in May, noticed various benefits.

The cardiovascular and weight exercises "helped me a lot," reported Anne Bravato, 79, of Tampa. "I've lost inches," she said. "My clothes seem to fit better. People tell me I've lost weight."

Bravato was so enthusiastic about the first 16-week class that she signed up for the current one, which started in late August.

In the first 16-week class in Tampa, participants met three times a week, an hour each time, to perform exercises that strengthen muscles, increase balance and build stamina.

The average age of participants was 74.

The EnhanceFitness classes were designed at the University of Washington, according to Alan Dubois, a certified EnhanceFitness instructor and group exercise coordinator at the South Tampa Y.

The exercises were created to have low impact and to develop upper and lower body muscles and balance, which is especially helpful for people with arthritis.

Light weights that can be strapped to wrists in case the participant can't grip traditional dumbbells are used.

Participants in the program were carefully tested in three areas upper body strength, lower body strength and balance at the beginning of the 16 weeks and at the end to measure change, Dubois said.

For the upper body strength test, men were given 8-pound weights, women 5-pound weights, and participants were instructed to do as many biceps curls as possible in 30 seconds. The lower body strength test involved standing up and sitting down as often as possible in 30 seconds.

To test balance, a cone was placed 8 feet from the chair of the participant, who was timed on how long it took to go from chair to cone and back. A cane or walker could be used, Dubois said.

In addition to improved physical health, Dubois pointed to another benefit of the EnhanceFitness classes. "Members have struck up friendships," he said. "If someone doesn't show up for a class," members will notice. "It's a very social thing for this population."

For Gail Lipman of Tampa, whose challenge is to "exercise for the rest of my life," EnhanceFitness is ideal. The 74-year-old signed up for a second 16-week session after experiencing success the first time around.

"My cholesterol went down," she said. "My balance numbers went up after the first class. It's hard for me to do it ... but I am really committed to doing this because it's really good for my health."

The need is clearly out there.

Arthritis affects millions of Americans, an estimated 20 percent of the population, according to Dr. John Carter, chief of rheumatology at the University of South Florida, and osteoarthritis is "more common as you age (and) more common in females above the age of 50."

The biggest benefits of low-impact exercise for people with arthritis are better muscle tone, which helps the joints, and reduced inflammation in these joints, Carter said.

"There are other potential benefits of exercise," he said, "such as keeping your weight down."

Because movement can be painful with arthritis, people often wonder if they are doing more harm than good when they exercise. "Our bodies are smart," Carter said. "Oftentimes, they will tell us" if we are doing too much.

"Exercise is beneficial for every type of arthritis," he said. "If you don't move it, you'll lose it."

The good news about EnhanceFitness classes is that the exercises are designed for people 50 and older, and you don't have to have arthritis to participate, said Dawn Kita, healthy living director for the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA.

"We're changing lives," she said. "We've got people who could not touch their forefinger to their thumb before the program. Now they have grasping ability.

"We're helping people improve their independence."

To add to the experience, EnhanceFitness instructors time the exercises to music.

"You don't get bored," observed Mary Rollins of Palma Ceia, who says she is 72 "but doesn't feel it thanks to this program. My breathing is better. (And) it helps my focus and concentration.

"I've done exercise my whole life," she said. "I don't enjoy it (but) I hate to miss this."

The second 16-week session will end in December, but there are more sessions planned in 2018, Kita said.

"It's a great age group to work with," Dubois said. "I enjoy seeing them get stronger and have a better quality of life."

Contact Fred W. Wright Jr. at travelword@aol.com.