Health Connection will remain open

Tuesday, May 19, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 19, 2009

COLUMBIA — The Health Connection, an MU-funded fitness center for senior citizens, will remain open despite several months of uncertainty about the center's future, said Richard Oliver, dean of the School of Health Professions.

On Monday, Oliver said the activism of gym members convinced him to keep open the Health Connection on six conditions:

  • increased membership fees;
  • longer membership contracts;
  • reduction in hours;
  • recruitment of new members;
  • using the gym as a "living research" laboratory; and
  • partnership with another organization, as yet unnamed.

Cheering and applause from the gym members — several wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "The Health Connection: Never Too Old to Sweat" — drowned out Oliver after he made the announcement in the facility's cardiovascular and weight room.

The 19-year-old gym, located at 1507 E. Broadway, was scheduled to close June 30 because of budget strains. Oliver said he did not expect the gym's location to change, pending approval from Stephens College, where the facility is located.

"It's been two months of thinking the gym was going to close and wondering what we were going to do," said Frances Martin, 75, a 10-year Health Connection member. "I think everyone is relieved."

The Health Connection's members organized a letter-writing campaign to federal, state and university officials in response to the announcement of the gym's closing. They then held a town hall meeting with Oliver and Harold Williamson Jr., MU Health Care's vice chancellor, to discuss the facility's future. The result of the meeting was the formation of an 11-member committee of Health Connection members, facilitated by School of Health Professions development officer Meichele Foster, who looked at ways to keep the gym open.

Oliver commended the committee for a "stellar job" and a "great business plan." He said the committee's report helped quantify the gym's importance to the facility's 325 members "so we would have a basis for measurement and not just hearsay."

"We have a bright membership that pulled together to build a plan that aided in Dr. Oliver's decision," said Debbie Kaplan, Health Connection's director.

The committee developed four business plans for the center, surveyed members on possible changes and developed a plan for increasing membership. The majority of members surveyed said they would accept many of Oliver's conditions, including higher fees, reduced hours of operation and long-term membership plans. Many said they were willing to make a one-time or yearly donation to a "Friends of the Health Connection Fund."

Kaplan said the center's staff would meet with Oliver and School of Health Professions staff later in the week to discuss details.

The gym's current deficit is about $405,000, according to previous Missourian reports. This deficit was expected to grow by $100,000 to $110,000 annually. The program must have a balanced budget to continue operating, said Cheri Ghan, MU School of Health Professions communication director.

About half of the gym's members — most in their 60s, 70s and 80s — need assistance or monitoring during exercise. A registered nurse is on site on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings to check members' blood pressure, heart rates and oxygen saturation before and after workouts. The gym's staff also advises members on how to properly use the exercise equipment and which machines members should and should not use.

In addition to the extra monitoring and assistance, Health Connection members said they enjoy the camaraderie among members. Many said they enjoy socializing before, during and after workouts.

"We're like a big extended family," said Marilyn Bagnell, a committee member and 10-year Health Connection member.

Bagnell, 84, said the gym "worked miracles" for her. She first joined as part of an arthritis study by Marian Minor, founder of the Health Connection and MU professor and chairwoman of the physical therapy department. Bagnell said the gym's exercise classes gave her greater mobility and better posture, as well as allowed her to continue playing the organ at her church. Pain in her hands prevented Bagnell from playing more than 15 minutes. After two weeks of special hand exercises from her favorite gym instructor, Bagnell said the pain disappeared. She can now play the organ without pain for as long as she wants.

"It's added years to my life — good years," Bagnell said.

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