Providing Rural Veterans With Access to Exercise Through Gerofit

Clinical video telehealth can be used to deliver functional circuit exercise training to older veterans in remote locations.

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Exercise increases endurance, muscle strength, and functional performance with corresponding gains in mobility, survival, and quality of life.1 However, even with these benefits and improvements in clinical outcomes, only 15% of adults aged ≥ 65 years follow current guidelines for exercise.2 Despite their prior military training, the majority of veterans do not meet physical activity recommendations.3 Time, travel, and support are common barriers to exercise participation and adherence—barriers that are further amplified among older adults.

The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is recognized as a world leader in telehealth service development. Currently, 677,000 veterans have received telehealth services, which represents 12% of the 5.6 million veterans under VHA care.4 Clinical video telehealth (CVT) is widely used within the VHA system to deliver health care that otherwise would not be available to veterans. Veterans who have difficulty traveling to the nearest US Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) medical center (VAMC) can access CVT programs at a participating VHA community-based outpatient clinic (CBOC). The VA has more than 45 CVT programs, including programs for mental health, weight management, cardiology, and dermatology. Outside the VA, cardiac exercise rehabilitation provided by CVT has been shown to be as effective as center-based programs in improving cardiovascular risk factors and functional capacity.5 A VHA exercise program that leveraged CVT resources and was dedicated to older adults with a wide range of comorbid conditions would have a high impact on the health and well-being of older veterans.

Gerofit is a VHA clinical demonstration program of supervised center-based exercise for veterans aged ≥ 65 years. Developed at the Durham VAMC Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center (GRECC) in North Carolina, it has demonstrated improved clinical outcomes, including physical function, mobility, quality of life, and survival.6-10 The program offers veterans individualized exercise in a group setting that focuses on improving endurance, strength, and balance. The exercise prescription is based on the patient’s physical limitations as identified in a physical performance assessment.

With support from VHA Geriatric Extended Care (GEC) and the Office of Rural Health (ORH), Gerofit was implemented in 10 VAMCs across 8 VISNs. However, barriers such as travel time, distance, and transportation limit participation. Previously, we found that rural veterans lack access to exercise programs.11,12 Although some do aerobic exercise (AEX), most do not do resistance training (RT), though they are willing to learn. Access to Gerofit for rural veterans is expanding with recent support from the ORH Enterprise Wide Initiative. Rural program expansion includes several different Gerofit initiatives, many involving CBOCs.

The Salem VAMC Gerofit program sought to adapt the facility-based assessment and exercise procedures into a self-reliant CVT class for its CBOCs. This article describes the development of the Salem VAMC Gerofit CVT program, hereafter referred to as Tele-Gerofit.

Program Design

Gerofit was established in 1986 at the Durham GRECC as an exercise and health promotion program for veterans aged ≥ 65 years.13 Its goal is to prevent or improve functional decline from physical inactivity and age-related conditions. Gerofit targets the geriatric patient population and thus extends beyond cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation or weight loss programs. The primary exclusion criteria are based on safety issues in the context of a group exercise setting of older adults and include oxygen dependency, unstable cardiac disease, and moderate-to-severe cognitive impairment.


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