EnhanceFitness: Helping Older Adults Get Active and Stay Independent

This blog post is part of a spotlight series featuring examples of programs and community design changes that get older adults moving. The posts were first published as part of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans Midcourse Report: Implementation Strategies for Older Adults and highlight ways to apply strategies from the report in different settings.

At a glance

Who? Enhance®Fitness

What? An evidence-based group exercise and falls prevention program that helps older adults at all fitness levels get more active so they can lead independent lives.

Where can I learn more? http://projectenhance.org/enhancefitness 

Falls are a leading cause of injury among older adults, but physical activity can help prevent fall-related injuries — and allow older adults to stay active and independent. That’s why hundreds of organizations across the country offer EnhanceFitness programs to older adults in their communities.

EnhanceFitness is a low-cost, evidence-based program that’s specifically designed to help older adults at different fitness levels get more active. Seattle-based nonprofit Sound Generations manages EnhanceFitness in partnership with the University of Washington Health Promotion Research Center.

Certified instructors lead EnhanceFitness classes both virtually and at YMCAs and other organizations nationwide. A typical 1-hour class includes aerobic activity, strength training, stretching, and balance exercises — and instructors aim to set a pace that’s right for the participants. About 60 percent of participants are age 70 years or older, and more than 20 percent are 80 years or older.

“We’ve found that over the course of the 16-week program, participants grow more confident in their ability to do things independently,” says Summer Cruff, Director of Community Health Programs at YMCA of the Suncoast in Florida. “That’s because we’re following the EnhanceFitness evidence-based standards, which are proven to help older adults improve their health. We also encourage the participants by emphasizing that we’re following the Physical Activity Guidelines — that’s a great motivator.”

In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes EnhanceFitness as an Arthritis-Appropriate, Evidence-Based Intervention. That means the program is proven to reduce arthritis symptoms and teach participants how to safely increase their physical activity to manage arthritis and other chronic conditions.

Strategy: Make It Fun

EnhanceFitness focuses not just on fitness but also on building participants’ confidence in their ability to get active and reducing their fear of falling. In addition, the program has a strong emphasis on social connection.

“Of course we work on physical muscle-strengthening in EnhanceFitness — but we also work our social muscles!” says Paige Denison, Director of Health, Wellness, and Project Enhance at Sound Generations. For example, instructors for virtual sessions are encouraged to “open” the classroom early so participants can socialize and catch up with each other before class.

Denison says that for many older adults who’ve been socially isolated, EnhanceFitness offers a “fitness family” — which is key to encouraging them to prioritize their health. She also notes that instructors recognize the importance of keeping participants engaged. “We work really hard to make it fun so that it’s not something participants feel like they have to do but something they want to do!”

Cruff says many participants who complete 16 weeks of EnhanceFitness classes sign up for another session: “People come back because it’s fun and they feel better about themselves when they’re participating.” 

Impact: Physical, Mental, and Social Benefits

Today, there are EnhanceFitness programs in 44 states, and more than 105,000 people have participated. Since EnhanceFitness launched as a pilot program in 1993, the response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive:

  • 99 percent of participants say they would recommend EnhanceFitness to a friend
  • 94 percent of participants gave themselves a rating of 3 or higher for improvement in physical abilities as a result of participating in EnhanceFitness (with 1 being no improvement and 5 being great improvement)

In addition, EnhanceFitness has been shown to:

  • Improve physical function
  • Decrease depression
  • Protect against falls and fall-related injuries
  • Provide a social benefit
  • Reduce health care costs
  • Decrease unplanned hospitalizations
  • Decrease mortality rates

Key Takeaway: There’s No Need to Start from Scratch

Denison explains that implementing an evidence-based program like EnhanceFitness is often easier for organizations than creating their own programs — and is likely to result in better outcomes.

“When you have an established, evidence-based program, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Denison. “Instead, you can focus on raising awareness and delivering the program to best meet the needs of people in your community.”

Categories: health.gov Blog