Highmark Inc. Medicare plan members who join a formal fitness program appear to exercise more and feel better than other Medicare plan members.

Highmark, Pittsburgh, has reported those findings in a review of a 1-year-old program that encourages Medicare plan members to sign up for the SilverSneakers Fitness program, a national exercise program run by Axia Health Management L.L.C., Phoenix.

About 14% of eligible Highmark Medicare plan members signed up for the program, the company says.

The fitness program members used 30% fewer health care services than other Medicare plan members, and health care costs for the members who visited the fitness center the most went down, Highmark reports.

Because participation in the SilverSneakers program is voluntary, the fitness program participants included in the study may have started out with better physical and mental health than non-participants.

But Highmark notes that many of the program participants seem to believe that their own health as improved.

About 67% of fitness program participants with back problems said back pain was interfering less with their daily activities, and 37% of the participants with moderate to severe arthritis symptoms reported having less arthritis pain, Highmark says.

The number of fitness program members who were physically active 3 or more days per week increased to 70% at the end of the first program year, up from 46% before the program started, Highmark says.