The East Pasco YMCA in Zephyrhills is a welcoming community center for all ages — but some of its most robust activities are designed with the region’s ever-growing senior population in mind.
Step into the facility any weekday mid-morning and you’re bound to find dozens upon dozens of seniors getting fit — and enjoying themselves, too — simultaneously, through pickleball, Silver Sneakers and water aerobics classes.
Pickleball is by far the most popular activity among seniors, East Pasco YMCA officials say. At any given time, three dozen players or more are competing in the indoor gymnasium, at 37301 Chapel Hill Loop.
Pickleball is a paddleball sport combining many elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong.
Using a smaller badminton-sized court and a slightly modified tennis net, players use a paddle and a plastic ball with holes, in either singles and doubles format.
Compared to conventional tennis, pickleball players serve underhanded, the ball has less bounce and there’s no double alleys — whereby singles and doubles players are played on the same-size court. Moreover, there’s a 7-foot no-volley zone on each side of the net to prevent spiking.
In simpler terms, pickleball represents a relatively seamless transition for aging tennis players who maintain hand-eye coordination and competitive drive, but no longer have quite the footspeed to cover as much ground as they could in their younger years.
Like many of her elder peers, San Antonio resident Carol Hatfield can be found playing pickleball at the YMCA at least five days a week.
The 74-year-old enjoys the fitness and fellowship components of the sport, playing alongside locals and snowbirds alike.
“It’s just good exercise,” said Hatfield, who picked up the game about five years ago.
“I’m a tennis player, too, but I enjoy the exercise and friendly people. We’ve met a lot of people from the north.
“I think the older I’ve gotten, I play more pickleball than tennis. I just enjoy the pickleball. The game’s quick,” she said.
East Pasco Family YMCA membership and wellness experience director Ryan Pratt is regularly awestruck in the way the center’s aging players get after it on the court, demonstrating their mastery of the fast-paced game.
“It’s quite impressive,” said Pratt, himself a former Division I college football player at Eastern Michigan University, during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
“You see the way they move in there, the agility that some of these seniors are displaying. They keep begging me, ‘You gotta come in and play with us,’ and I think they’ll put to shame if I were to go in there,” he said.
Like other Florida-based gyms and fitness centers, the local YMCA was shut down from about mid-March through mid-May due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was during that period Pratt realized the significance of social interaction for all members, seniors included.
“We’re so focused on health and wellness and getting your exercise in, but most people said they missed seeing their friends. I think we really downplayed the effect of social isolation that’s going on right now still,” he said.
The YMCA administrator jested when the recreation facility finally reopened to members, “I think we had more conversations than exercise going on, but that tells you what was needed, besides the exercise. They just needed to get back and see each other, and have a conversation.”
Seventy-five-year-old Dade City resident Barb Gerrish, for one, was chomping at the bit to resume her daily Silver Sneakers classes amid the COVID-19 shutdown.
The facility’s Silver Sneakers program offers a variety of full-body exercises for seniors designed to increase muscular strength and motion. Handheld weights, elastic tubing, a ball and chair are used for resistance.
In lieu of these organized classes, Gerrish opted to walk in her neighborhood after every meal to keep active.
But, Silver Sneakers offers more apt movements to help her arthritis — also in a fun, socially distanced setting.
“I like the whole thing,” Gerrish said of Silver Sneakers, noting the Y has multiple instructors who each bring their own flair to classes.
A social butterfly herself, Gerrish makes a point to greet every participant either before or after class. “I have a lot of friends here, and I like it that way,” she said.
She also encourages others in her age range to partake in Silver Sneakers programming, no matter their fitness level or physical limitations: “Anything’s better than nothing. Just give it a try. You don’t know until you’ve tried.”
Other seniors like Greg Bartlett can be found getting their fitness fix in the local Y’s seven-lane heated outdoor pool.
The 62-year-old Zephyrhills resident has been a regular in the facility’s water aerobics classes for nearly a decade.
He joined the water exercise program to get healthy and to keep his weight in check.
A diabetic on disability with back and neck ailments, Bartlett is unable to partake in traditional cardiovascular exercises on land, he said.
Instead, the water is his safe haven for a fulfilling yet low-impact workout.
“To do things like the treadmills and stuff is just too rough on me. Here, you don’t have all the impact, and I can exercise hard in the water,” explained Bartlett.
The aqua classes have been a lifesaver for Bartlett, literally.
“I really, honestly believe I wouldn’t be alive today if I wasn’t doing this, because I’ve got so many health conditions, and my weight and all that,” he said.
When the YMCA closed in the spring, Bartlett was at a loss for what to do and how to cope.
“I put on weight during the pandemic and it really hurt,” he said. “I think they should’ve never closed down this type of stuff. Lack of exercise, for people like me, you start reversing and getting back where you have problems breathing and stuff like that. I mean, it’s easy enough to keep separated, in the pool especially, and you’re also in chlorinated water.”
Bartlett likewise missed having a place to go and hobnob with his aqua classmates. “I consider all these people my friends down here,” he said.
Exercise classes are energizing
Keeping Bartlett and many other seniors in shape is Kim Womack, a longtime exercise instructor who’s worked at the East Pasco YMCA for going on 14 years.
The experienced fitness teacher brings an upbeat and energetic attitude as she organizes water aerobics, Silver Sneakers and other group exercises.
Womack gets a kick out of seeing her elder pupils complete a fulfilling workout session — and seeing their enjoyment through it all.
Womack put it like this: “I just love the way that it makes the members feel. They feel good, they feel energized.”
It’s satisfying, she said, to know “that they’re getting a good workout, they’re enjoying it and they’re having fun. It’s just nice seeing them being so active.”
When the pandemic initially touched down, Womack worried for her older clientele, not just for traditional health reasons, but the possible effects of social isolation and inactivity.
“A majority of the people who love doing group exercise classes kind of need those people around, and it just makes the day a lot easier for them,” Womack said. “It was quite a shock to see how you miss being around people and talking to them, and seeing how they’re doing.”
For more information, call 813-780-9622 or visit TampaYmca.org/east-pasco-family-ymca/about.
Published February 10, 2021