Rural seniors benefit from pandemic-driven remote fitness boom

WKU’s Bingosize, a fall prevention program, provided a mailed card as an alternative to using an app

By: - January 25, 2023 7:38 pm

From her home near Fergus Falls, Minnesota, retired dentist Dr. Yvonne Hanley teaches a virtual fitness class for older adults that meets three times a week. (Photo by Patrick Hanley)

This article was republished from KHN, Kaiser Health News.

MALMO, Minn. — Eight women, all 73 or older, paced the fellowship hall at Malmo Evangelical
Free Church to a rendition of Daniel O’Donnell’s “Rivers of Babylon” as they warmed up for an
hourlong fitness class.

The women, who live near or on the eastern shore of Mille Lacs Lake, had a variety of reasons
for showing up despite fresh snow and slippery roads. One came to reduce the effects of
osteoporosis; another, to maintain mobility after a stroke.

Most brought hand and ankle weights, which they would use in a later portion of the program
focused on preventing falls, known as Stay Active and Independent for Life, or SAIL. The class
meets twice a week in Malmo, a township of about 300 residents. It is run by Juniper, a
statewide network of providers of health promotion classes.

A few years ago, older adults who were interested in taking an evidence-based class like SAIL —
meaning a class proved by research to promote health — had only one option: attend in
person, if one was offered nearby.

But then the covid-19 pandemic and physical distancing happened. Along with social isolation
came the rapid introduction of remote access to everything from work to workouts.

After widespread lockdowns began in March 2020, agencies serving seniors across the U.S.
reworked health classes to include virtual options. Isolation has long since ended, but virtual
classes remain. For older adults in rural communities who have difficulty getting to exercise
facilities, those virtual classes offer opportunities for supervised physical activity that were rare
before the pandemic.

And advocates say online classes are here to stay.

Stay Active and Independent for Life (SAIL) is an exercise class that improves seniors’ strength and flexibility to reduce their risk of falling. (Christina Saint Louis/KHN)

“Virtually the whole field knows that offering in-person and remote programming — a full
range of programming — is a great way to reach more older adults, to increase access and
equity,” said Jennifer Tripken, associate director of the Center of Healthy Aging at the National
Council on Aging. “This is where we need to move together.”

Since April 2020, the National Council on Aging has organized monthly conference calls for
service providers to discuss how to improve virtual programs or begin offering them.

“We found that remote programming, particularly for rural areas, expanded the reach of
programs, offering opportunities for those who have traditionally not participated in in-person
programs to now have the ability to tune in, to leverage technology to participate and receive
the benefits,” Tripken said.

In 2022, at least 1,547 seniors participated in an online fitness program through Juniper, part of
a Minnesota Area Agency on Aging initiative. More than half were from rural areas.
Because of grant funding, participants pay little or nothing.

Juniper’s virtual classes have become a regular activity both for people who live far from class
locations and others who because of medical needs can’t attend. Carmen Nomann, 73,
frequented in-person exercise classes near her home in Rochester before the pandemic. After
suffering a rare allergic reaction to a covid vaccine, she's had to forgo boosters and limit in-
person socializing.

Virtual classes have been "really a great lifeline for keeping me in condition and having
interaction," she said.

Since 2020, Nomann has participated in online tai chi and SAIL, at one point logging on four
days a week.

“Now, we would never go away from our online classes,” said Julie Roles, Juniper’s vice
president of communications. “We’ve learned from so many people, particularly rural people,
that that allows them to participate on a regular basis — and they don’t have to drive 50 miles
to get to a class.”

When seniors drive a long way to attend a class with people from outside their communities,
“it’s harder to build that sense of ‘I'm supported right here at home,’” she said.

Roles said both virtual and in-person exercise programs address social isolation, which older
adults in rural areas are prone to.

Dr. Yvonne Hanley has been teaching an online SAIL class for Juniper since 2021 from her home
near Fergus Falls. She had recently retired from dentistry and was looking for a way to help
people build strength and maintain their health.

At first, Hanley was skeptical that students in her class would bond, but over time, they did. “I
say ‘Good morning’ to each person as they check in,” she said. “And then during class, I try to
make it fun.”

AgeOptions, an Illinois agency serving seniors, has seen similar benefits since introducing virtual
fitness programs. Officials at the agency said last year that their operations “may have changed
forever” in favor of a hybrid model of virtual and in-person classes.

That model allows AgeOptions to maintain exercise programs through Illinois’ brutal winters.
Organizers previously limited winter activities to keep older adults from traveling in snow and
ice, but now AgeOptions leans on remote classes instead.

“If the pandemic didn’t happen, and we didn’t pivot these programs to virtual, we wouldn’t be
able to do that,” said Kathryn Zahm, a manager at AgeOptions. “We would just potentially
spend months limiting our programming or limiting the types of programming that we offered.
So now we can still continue to offer fall-prevention programs throughout the year because we
can offer it in a safe way.”

But the new approach has challenges.

AgeOptions has identified increasing access to technology as a funding priority for the next few
years, to ensure seniors can sign on.

The agency found that for many “folks in rural communities it was a challenge not only for them
to have the device but to have the bandwidth to be able to do video conference calls,” Zahm

Tripken said providers and participants need guidance and support to facilitate access to virtual

“For older adults in particular, that includes ensuring those with vision loss, those with hearing
loss, those with low English proficiency” can participate in virtual classes, she said.

Western Kentucky University creates accomodation

Some programs have created accommodations to ease the technology barrier.

Participants in Bingocize — a fall-prevention program licensed by Western Kentucky University
that combines exercise and health education with bingo — can use a printed copy of the game
card mailed to them by AgeOptions if they lack the proficiency to play on the game’s app. Either
way, they’re required to participate on video.

The mail option emerged after Bingocize fielded requests from many senior service
organizations trying to figure out how to offer it remotely, said Jason Crandell, the creator and
international director of Bingocize.

Crandell designed Bingocize as a face-to-face program and later added the online application to
use during in-person classes. Then covid hit.

“All of a sudden, all of these Area Agencies on Aging are scrambling, and they were scrambling
trying to figure out, ‘How do we do these evidence-based programs remotely?’” Crandell said.
He said Bingocize was one of the few programs at the time that could quickly pivot to strictly
remote programming, though it had never done so before.

“From when the pandemic began to now, we’ve come light-years on how that is done,” he said,
“and everybody’s getting more comfortable with it.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about
health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating
programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization
providing information on health issues to the nation.

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Christina Saint Louis/KHN
Christina Saint Louis/KHN

Christina Saint Louis, correspondent, covers rural health care. Based in Minneapolis, she reports primarily on the Upper Midwest. She joined KHN from the Star Tribune’s public safety team, where she reported on policing and crime in Minneapolis. Originally from Stuart, Florida, she was previously an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald after having become the first recipient of its Esserman-Knight Investigative Journalism Fellowship. She received her master’s degree from the Toni Stabile Program in Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.