But knowing that regular, medically supervised exercise is, literally, a lifeline for many cardiac patients, HeartFit managers scrambled to resurrect some of their offerings via Zoom. Within a week of the Cubberley closure, the program was up and running online.
HeartFit members soon were dancing, stretching and sweating within their own bedrooms, family rooms and living rooms, led by instructors on Zoom and observed by nurses monitoring participants in each session.
HeartFit members, who typically are referred to the program by their physicians, live with a wide range of heart conditions, including high blood pressure, arrhythmias, heart failure, diabetes, stroke risk, history of heart attack or heart surgery, angioplasty or stent placement. Founded in 1970 as a local YMCA program, HeartFit was among the first medically supervised cardiac-therapy programs in the country aimed at helping those with heart conditions reverse their symptoms.
The program's quick pivot to remote — but still medically supervised — exercise has yielded lessons large and small, said HeartFit Director Robin Wedell, a registered nurse and member of the Preventive Cardiovascular Nurses Association.
The new normal has pros and cons, but in any case, the post-pandemic future will not look the same as the pre-pandemic past, she said.
For one thing, Wedell has embraced a telemedicine program that now allows her to enroll new heart patients to the program remotely from anywhere in the world. Even when she's able to reopen the gym safely, Wedell plans to extend the remote option to people who prefer it.
"I had always wanted to offer a hybrid approach because there are some people who can't do the brick and mortar," she said. "Now our hand was forced (by COVID-19). Ultimately it will be great because I'll have a full menu to offer, and if people want to do it remotely, they can."
Longtime HeartFit members say they love the convenience of exercising from home but sorely miss the in-person camaraderie of the Cubberley gym experience.
"I love getting up and walking to the living room and doing Zoom — and not having to get in my car and drive through downtown-Palo Alto-morning-rush-hour traffic to get to Cubberley," Menlo Park resident Dave Eckert said.
The convenience has led Eckert, 63, to boost his HeartFit participation from three to five times per week.
He and his husband, 79-year-old Dick Hansen, exercise together.
"I push some coffee tables out of the way and our living room is big enough that we just do it together," Eckert said.
Hansen, a program member since he had a heart attack 15 years ago, credits his continued existence to HeartFit.
"I feel I'm alive today because of this. I'm in much better health than I've ever been in my life," Hansen said.
Palo Alto resident Elizabeth Wolf enjoys walking to her bedroom and logging onto Zoom five mornings a week.
"It's better for me," Wolf, 88, said. "I don't have to take my car, which I think is very important. I think I'm working harder. Katie (the exercise leader) makes it fun. And my blood pressure is much better now, probably because I'm not just racing around all the time."
Even so, the convenience of Zoom cannot compensate for the missed benefits of in-person class in the gym, many members said.
"It's definitely much better to be in class because one of the benefits is that you chat with other people while you're biking," said Palo Alto resident Carl Thomsen, a retired CFO and 20-year HeartFit member. "It's a social benefit as well as an exercise benefit."
The Zoom sessions do allow time for pre- and post-workout chatting, and every Wednesday there's a festive-themed "spirit day" that includes costumes and Latin, country, Bollywood or patriotic music. But the Zoom social life will never compare to the real thing, members said.
"When I first came (to HeartFit) after my heart attack 15 years ago, I thought it was going to be all these old people," Hansen said. "But on the very first day, one of the guys — he's now been in the program 33 years — came right up to me and said, 'Don't worry about being depressed. We'll take care of you — we take care of each other here.'"
While overall senior participation in group exercise programs has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic, older adults expressed a need to stay active at home, according to a recent study by French researchers published in JMIR Aging.
Geriatrician Marie Bernard, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging, said people should get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.
Exercise routines that can be easily adapted at home should include endurance, such as marching or dancing in place; strength training, such as lifting free weights or cans; balance, such as standing on one foot (with a chair, if needed); and stretching, she said.
"The most important thing is simply be active. Do what works for you and keep striving to do more," Bernard said.
If you are interested
HeartFit currently offers 10 fitness classes per week with a variety of exercises, including aerobic, weight resistive, balance and stretching. The exercises are adaptable to all levels of function and ability. Most classes are 45 minutes long, but some are 35 minutes.
To enroll in HeartFit for Life, call 650-494-1300. HeartFit nurses will contact your physician for a referral and request the appropriate medical records. More information about HeartFit for Life is available at heartfitforlife.org.