ROCKINGHAM--Between the music and laughter at FirstHealth Fitness-Richmond on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where the fun stops and the exercise starts.
But the members of the Rock of Ages fitness class don't think fun and exercise have to be mutually exclusive. While they have some laughs and the mood is light, they are serious about the 90-minute sessions. And they are quick to share their stories of reduced pain, stronger balance, and an enhanced sense of overall well-being that comes from exercising together.
"You feel good about yourself every time you go," says Ronald Wallace, 71, who lives in Rockingham. "Sure, there are times when I don't feel like going, but I'm always glad I did once we finish."
The driving force behind the class is instructor Brenda Tyler. When she took over the class about four years ago, she did whatever it took to recruit participants. That included approaching walkers on the track at FirstHealth Fitness-Richmond and asking them to join. "I really enjoy exercise," says the retired special education teacher, "and I want the people in this class to enjoy it too."
Tyler has refined the course over the years, roughly splitting it up into three, 30-minute segments of traditional gym work, yoga and swimming. Participants can take part in some or all of the offerings, which aim to build strength in the core, arms and legs.
"I try to make it as practical as possible," says Tyler. "We work a lot on core and leg strength, but combine that with things that make sense for them at home. For instance, we build strength but also demonstrate how to apply that strength to safely reach high up on a shelf for something, or how to get back up if you have a fall."
Frequent falls were the reason Jane Nicholson first came to Rock of Ages. "It didn't take much for me to fall," says Nicholson. "There didn't have to be anything in front of me. I was just stumbling over my own feet and falling."
For her, the results of the class have been dramatic as well as liberating. "It's helped me with balance, especially the exercises where we walk in place or stand on one leg while moving the other one up and down," Nicholson says. She's also less afraid of having a fall now, thanks to the confidence that comes with a renewed sense of balance. "I don't worry about falling like I used to, and when you don't worry about that, it gives you confidence to go ahead and do what you've got to do."
Tyler says balance issues are a common complaint for people as they get older. "There are a lot of things associated with balance, such as sitting down or standing up," Tyler says. "So we work on sitting and standing a lot, because that's difficult for a lot of people. Whatever people need, I try to make sure we cover it in this class."
Building muscle strength is also a cornerstone of the class, something that has helped Bill Mitchell shed the knee brace he used to wear. Mitchell's career was spent working on the railroad, and the task of pulling maintenance on trains meant his knees got more than their fair share of work. Mitchell, 78, firmly believes the class has helped him avoid knee replacement surgery. "This class has helped me get rid of the pain and increased my mobility."
There's another benefit of the class, and it has nothing to do with pain reduction or better balance, according to Linda Hawkins. "We all care about each other, and you're never made to feel uncomfortable," says Hawkins, 80, who's been able to maintain her mobility thanks to the course, despite battling arthritis. "On top of what it does to make your aches and pains feel better, this class makes you feel good to be part of a fun group that really enjoys each other. That's important, too."
Ronald Wallace echoes those sentiments. "The wonderful thing is that we've formed a family, and we've all made some good friends through this class," Wallace says. "I would tell someone who is thinking about joining the class to come watch sometime. They'll be hooked, because the camaraderie and the spirit in there is contagious."
It's exactly the kind of atmosphere Tyler hoped to foster among the class from the start. "It's become a community of people who love each other, and when new ones come in, they welcome them with open arms. They really have made a connection with each other."