WILLMAR -- For the past three years, Sandy Rumney, 72, has been going to an exercise class twice a week to strengthen her bones.
It's paying off. Not only has it helped her stay active, but it also has resulted in measurable improvement in her bone density.
"I've fallen a few times and I definitely think I would have broken something if it hadn't been for this," Rumney said.
The Bone Builders class that Rumney attends at the Willmar City Auditorium each week takes aim at one of the more significant health issues faced by older adults: osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, as many as 55 percent of Americans over age 50 have some degree of osteoporosis, putting them at higher risk of broken bones, disability and loss of independence.
Complications following the fracture of a hip or other bone are thought to contribute to as many as 40,000 deaths a year in the U.S.
Although men can get osteoporosis too, it's most prevalent among older women, especially after menopause.
"It's a real challenge. There's a high morbidity with fractures," said Peggy Lister, a registered nurse and trained volunteer who leads the classes.
At one time osteoporosis was seen as an unavoidable consequence of aging, she said. But that's no longer the case. "Osteoporosis is something that you can prevent, and it starts in the teen years," Lister said.
The Bone Builders class has been offered in Willmar every Tuesday and Thursday since early 2009.
On a recent fall morning, half a dozen women have arrived at the city auditorium early so they can walk laps around the gym.
For the next hour, Lister leads the group through a series of stretches, lunges and light weight-lifting.
On days when the weather is good, the whole class sometimes takes a brisk walk through downtown Willmar.
The program uses a curriculum developed in the 1990s by Tufts University in Boston and based on research on the impact of weight-bearing exercise among older women. According to the studies, older women who participated in a weight training program twice a week gained back, on average, 1 percent of their bone density. They also reported increased strength, more energy and a greater overall sense of well-being.
Additional benefits are improved gait and balance, which can help prevent falls that might lead to a fracture.
"The exercises are very focused on muscle groups and body awareness," Lister said. "They aren't difficult. They're exercises you can do at home. The unique part of this is that it's volunteer-driven. It's free. It's self-directed."
The Willmar program has produced results for many of the women, she said. Several have seen improvements in their bone density measures, and some have developed enough strength to graduate to heavier weights.
In a new partnership that began this year with Affiliated Community Medical Centers, a physical therapist visits the class every six months to assess each woman's strength and range of motion and monitor their progress.
Education is an important component as well, Lister said. "We exchange information. They'll share with the group something they've read in the news. We use the time to broaden everyone's knowledge."
Most of the participants rarely miss a class.
"I enjoy it, especially when you know you're doing something good for your body," said Lila Warwick, 78.
"The ladies that come here are so motivated," Lister said. "They're very proactive about their health."
There's a core group of 10 to 12 who "come pretty religiously," she said. "The social networking is important too. They notice when someone is absent."
Although most of the women are in their 70s, some are older -- for instance, 88-year-old Irene Weis, who said the twice-weekly classes are "really the best exercise I've ever taken."
"It gets from the toes to the fingers. It covers everything," she said.
Her bone density scores have improved, she noted. "I really feel it is doing some good. ... My doctor told me to keep on with it."
Local physicians have increasingly been referring their patients to the Bone Builders class, said Sheri Nordmeyer, program director for the Willmar Community Senior Network.
Her agency, the main sponsor of the classes, wants to increase its outreach and get more participants enrolled.
Nordmeyer said it has been inspiring to see how engaged in their health the women have become. "They hold each other accountable," she said. "If someone isn't there, they'll call."