Crystal Gamage, a longtime Palo Alto resident who turned 100 in July, recently celebrated her milestone birthday at the gym where she has worked out regularly for more than a decade: It's a place, she said, that has kept her healthy and energized since undergoing heart surgery 11 years ago.
As Gamage entered the gym for her birthday celebration on a recent Monday, fellow gym members greeted her with a round of cheers before climbing onto stationary bikes or treadmills and chatting with those on neighboring equipment during their daily workout.
"There's never a lack of conversation here — chatting is very important," Gamage said. The gym, she said, has "helped me keep up my energy and helped my heart stay healthy, and I've really made a lot of friends here."
While Gamage may be the first, and only, centenarian at the gym, she's not the only senior enrolled in HeartFit for Life, a medically supervised exercise program at Cubberley Community Center aimed at helping those with heart conditions reverse their symptoms. Participants range in age from 30 to 100 — the average age is 74.
HeartFit for Life — which was founded in 1970 as a local YMCA program and was among the first cardiac therapy programs in the country — will mark its 50th anniversary next year.
HeartFit's 190 active members — whose conditions range from arrhythmias to heart failure to a history of heart attack or heart surgery, angioplasty or stent placement — pay $155 per month for access to medically supervised exercise classes six days a week. In addition to treadmills, bikes and ellipticals, the gym is equipped with medical tools such as blood pressure cuffs and a defibrillator.
Members typically are referred by their physicians, said HeartFit Director Robin Wedell, a registered nurse and member of the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association.
Nurses track blood pressure, weight and pulse at the gym, adapting each member's workout to top out between 60% to 80% of his/her "predicted maximum heart rate," which is a score based on age, Wedell said. Exercise regimens are customized to address individual needs. The goal is to help patients maximize cardiac function.
"When people first come, I say, 'Get the foundation, get the self-monitoring skills and understand what it takes to reduce your risk for a future cardiac issue,'" Wedell said. "If they get it in three months and want to go back to their regular exercise program, I say 'Go ahead.'"
About 60% of people who start the program stay for a year, she said. Several members, who are now in their 80s, have been coming for more than 30 years. The average participant stays six years.
Among the reasons: Participation in a cardiac rehabilitation program is associated with a 25% to 31% reduction in mortality rate, Wedell said.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if you come into this program and you do it regularly, it makes a significant difference," said Larry Fagan of Los Altos, who has been attending for 10 years. Fagan, a retired biomedical computer science researcher at Stanford University, first came at the suggestion of his Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician.
The initial diagnosis "turned out not to be a major problem," Fagan said. "But I realized I needed to be in an exercise program like this, which is preventative."
Fagan attends three or four days a week, supplementing his HeartFit sessions with some tennis and walking.
"You need to be willing to commit a couple of times a week to showing up and being part of the environment," he said. "I know my doctors at PAMF are really happy I've continued to do this program because it provides a basis both for social and physical development."
Palo Alto resident Sara Boyd, retired vice principal of Menlo-Atherton High School, credits HeartFit for helping her maintain a healthier lifestyle since undergoing heart surgery in 2009.
"I come three times a week and they always tell you about your diet," Boyd said. "I don't fry food any more, and I'm watching salt intake. I'm addicted to sugar — I get some, but not as much as I used to. The whole program is all about keeping me healthy."
Boyd appreciates the regular check-ins with the nurses. "If anything's amiss, they'll contact your primary physician for you — and (the doctors) will get to you if those people call them," she said.
"The people here have been wonderful, too. On the bike, it's always good to have someone next to you that you can chat with, because I like to talk," she added.
Wedell said she wants members to gain "self-monitoring skills" — what the heart rate should be, what it feels like.
"The more you get to know your body, the more you're going to notice the nuances if something changes," she said. "I want them to know how to check their pulse ... so if it's different, they'll notice. We catch issues before they become big issues."
HeartFit also sponsors educational sessions for members, bringing in dieticians, physicians and others to discuss the latest on treatments and prevention.
"Our program is not only cardiac rehabilitation — it's also wellness and chronic disease management," she said.
With grants from Stanford, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and other community groups, HeartFit subsidizes monthly membership fees and also offers about $20,000 a year in scholarships.
"We don't turn anybody away — we want everybody to benefit from this," Wedell said.
Robin Wedell, director of the HeartFit for Life program, joins Weekly staff to give an overview of the program's cardiac therapy services on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.