LEWISTON — St. Mary’s Health System is ending its once-popular HealthSteps program.

For good this time.

St. Mary’s this week notified members that the program, which offers an array of fitness classes for adults, will end Aug. 31.

Spokesman Jason Gould said participation has dropped steadily in recent years. A summer session three years ago, for example, served 50 people. This summer there are only 15.

“It’s no longer viable,” he said.

He did not know why participation had dropped so significantly.

HealthSteps started well over 30 years ago. Classes usually met at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston or at Bates College’s Merrill Gymnasium, where they used the Bates swimming pool. A typical season could include 10 or so classes involving yoga, jogging, swimming or other activities. Often there was at least one separate class focused on senior fitness.

HealthSteps has inspired fervent loyalty among its members. When St. Mary’s decided to shut down the program in 2014, members banded together to protest.

“We fought that tooth and nail,” said Sheila Sylvester, 78, a HealthSteps member since 2000. 

That fight worked. St. Mary’s agreed to keep HealthSteps, though in an altered form with fewer classes.

However, HealthSteps’ most loyal members couldn’t save the program in the long term. There just aren’t enough of them.

“Every single session has been declining in enrollment,” Gould said.

Joanne McKee, 77, of New Gloucester, is one of HealthSteps’ earliest members. She believes she started around 1979, when she decided to check out a dance class and swim aerobics to get some exercise.

“It’s been a very long time,” McKee said.

Over the years, she’s tried other classes, including yoga ball, though she always returned to swimming. Last year, she started going to the senior exercise class. 

She noticed that the instructors seemed to change often.

“That was a problem,” she said. “We had to retrain some of the instructors because they were trying to be too kind to us. We wanted to make sure they got us aerobic.”

McKee typically went to a HealthSteps class three or four times a week. But she acknowledges she wasn’t one of the 15 who participated this season.

“I didn’t sign up this June because of summer and company, et cetera,” she said.

She wasn’t surprised to learn the program was shutting down — it seemed like HealthSteps was having trouble getting instructors and questions about its closure lingered over the past couple of years. 

But she’s disappointed to see it go, and she’ll miss it. 

“I’m really sorry that we’re not doing it anymore,” she said.

In its notice to members this week, St. Mary’s suggested a few alternatives.

The Gym on Main Street in Lewiston will offer HealthSteps members a discounted rate of $29.95 a month if they want to join. It offers 25 classes a week, including senior fitness and yoga.

The YMCA of Auburn-Lewiston on Turner Street in Auburn will give HealthSteps members a free 90-day transition membership.

The YWCA of Central Maine on East Avenue in Lewiston has a swimming pool and offers aquatic exercise classes.

Sylvester, who lives in Lewiston, has a different plan. As a retired Bates employee, she’ll still have access to the college’s swimming pool.

Though it won’t be the same.

“It’s not the same as being with a group of friends,” she said. “(HealthSteps had) wonderful exercise, wonderful classes, very good instructors and very good friends. It’s as much a social thing as it is an exercise thing.”

Although Gould said he didn’t think there’s any chance St. Mary’s will reverse course again on HealthSteps, officials will hold an open session Wednesday, Aug. 15, at 9 a.m. and Friday, Aug. 17, at 10 a.m. in the Lepage large conference room so members can ask questions and provide feedback about HealthSteps’ end.

“We know it’s a program that’s near and dear to folks, but the fact is it just isn’t a viable program,” Gould said. “We want to make sure we’re being as compassionate as we can in the process.” 

Sylvester plans to go.

“I hope to just be able to tell them how wonderful we have thought the program was and what a nice bunch of people they were — the instructors have been wonderful — and that we will miss it,” she said.

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