Science and Tech


Remote fitness classes are helping seniors in rural areas in U.S.

Due to the pandemic, a lot of health classes transitioned from in-person to remote delivery, improving access to better health outcomes.
Posted at 9:31 PM, Mar 28, 2023

It's been three years since the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us relied on the internet to stay connected with others. While much has gone back to in-person, there are seniors in rural parts of the country who are still benefiting from that virtual access, like Yvonne Hanley.

From her home in a rural area of northern Minnesota, Hanley joins 30 other seniors for a virtual exercise class. Most of the seniors live in rural areas.

"I love the Zoom," class participant Brooke Barsness said. "I love the fact that I can just roll out of bed, have my cup of coffee and a light breakfast and log in and be a part of this."

The class started during the pandemic, but it's here to stay as a way for seniors who live in rural areas to get their bodies moving.

"If I were taking the class in Fergus Falls, I would have to drive about 15 miles or 30 minutes in and 30 minutes back," class participant Linda Bowhall said. "So it's been a gift to have it over Zoom."

According to Juniper, part of a Minnesota Area Agency on Aging Initiative, more than 1,500 seniors participated in an online fitness program through Juniper in 2022. More than half were from rural areas.

"I'm a retired dentist and as I was retiring, I wanted to help older people be strong and healthy," Hanley said.   

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Most of the time, Hanley leads the exercise class. She says the class is part of a federal initiative called SAIL.

"SAIL stands for Staying Active and Independent for Life and it's an evidence-based program developed by research paid for by our government," Hanley said. "What they found out is with this one hour of exercise focusing on balance, strength and flexibility, they can cut down falls greatly."

Jennifer Tripken with the National Council on Aging says one of the leading threats to older adults are fails. 

"Falls are one of the most common injuries and injury related death in older adults," Tripken said. 

Tripken says there are stark differences between older adults who live in rural communities compared to those who live in more metro areas.

"We know that rural older adults experience health outcomes such as hypertension, stroke, chronic disease at rates higher than their urban counterparts," Tripken said. 

Tripken says she believes remote fitness is helping to close that gap.

"Due to the pandemic, a lot of health classes transitioned from in-person to remote delivery, and it really was a lifeline for many older adults, particularly in rural areas, in which there are many challenges to accessing programs that include exercise and health education," Tripken said.

Hanley says virtual fitness has been a game changer for older women no matter where they live.

"Most of these people that take the class are between 65 and 75," Hanley said. "That's the middle of the bell curve. And for women that age, we had no sports in high school until 1972, when Title IX was passed. Then they were mandated to start having sports. So a lot of these women have never gotten comfortable in a gym."

Via Zoom, she says it doesn't matter what they look like, and they can feel good knowing they're improving their strength, balance and flexibility.