WEST FORK KICKAPOO - In his book ‘Walden,’Henry David Thoreau says: “I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as a chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”
Thoreau’s words come to mind when I think of the ladies from around our community who have been faithfully attending their exercise classes twice weekly this year, outside.
We could never have guessed that our 16-year-run of classes, begun in a second-floor classroom of a retired school building, would come to an abrupt halt because of a pandemic—only to start again months later outdoors, under the large metal roof of the Viroqua VFW Post.
The Strong Women program was made possible through my friend Karen Traastad’s connection with UW-Extension. In the beginning, we strictly followed the books and research of Dr. Miriam Nelson, PhD, Tufts University. Karen and I drove to Tennessee to attend Dr. Nelson’s certification course, allowing us to offer the program here. All classes were taught sitting in a chair or standing next to one.
As the instructor, I raced from one end of the Driftless to the other, teaching classes in LaFarge, Viola, Viroqua, Westby, Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove. We even offered the program in a church in Genoa.
What happened next was the outcome of dedication, and not just mine.
The women who took the classes worked hard and attended consistently. The results: they became stronger, they started walking more, and their energy increased. The ante needed to be raised and the format changed. The ladies, all over 60, were feeling younger!
One of our first participants, Lillie, who was attending the Viroqua class at the Church of Christ, was running late one morning and was pulled over for driving a bit too fast. At that time, she was 90 years old.
When the police officer pulled her over, checked her driver’s license, and asked her where she was going in such a hurry, she replied, “To exercise class!” He handed back her license with a friendly warning to slow down!
In order for these increasingly strong women to continue to progress, the program had to evolve. No longer were we only sitting in chairs. We moved more and added tiny cardio-burst exercises, making sure we always had one foot firmly on the ground or were holding on to the back of a chair. We started working multiple joints and muscles with each exercise—bicep curls with standing leg abductions, or shoulder presses with knee lifts. We added movement patterns to challenge our brains as well as our muscles. And, we added new weight-bearing exercises.
Classes became more exciting and our numbers grew. But not everyone who wanted to attend could. Some were in nursing facilities, others had stopped driving, and some were limited by their reliance on wheelchairs and walkers.
Vernon Communications to the rescue! They filmed our classes and began airing them a few times daily so anyone who is housebound can exercise along with us. Recently, with many people staying home due to the pandemic, this option has become even more popular.
But still, the outdoor classes have thrived. The VFW pavilion is enormous and allows us to keep a safe distance from each other. Miraculously, since June 1, we haven't had a single cancellation, nor problems with gnats or mosquitoes. We only had one day with rain—the day VCC was there to film! But we all stayed dry under that big tin roof.
Normally, for most of July and all of August, the classes take a break. People choose to garden, hike, swim, and travel in summer. Not this year! Classes were fully attended throughout July and August.
Now, near the end of September, we’re still going strong. We may be dressed in extra layers and our warm-up may take longer, but we all agree the cooler weather lets us work harder.
Soon, before the snow flies, we’ll need to regroup and make a decision. Is there an unused building large enough to hold us (28 people attended the most recent class) and let us remain at least eight feet apart? Will people be willing to wear a mask indoors? And will we be able to keep everyone safe?
There are a few things I know for sure about this program. One is that the social aspect of the class—getting out of the house, seeing others, and chatting before and after—is just as important as the exercises themselves, especially during this pandemic.
Two, the many benefits of a regularly scheduled exercise program are not exaggerated. The ladies continue to amaze me. Their balance has become better, giving them the confidence they need to walk daily outdoors, get back on their bicycles, and climb up stepladders.
Three, we no longer sit in chairs! Ninety percent of the exercises are done while standing. (We still have chairs available, and all participants are encouraged to sit if they need to.)
If it sounds like I’m boasting, I am! In my humble opinion, these strong women are well worth bragging about.Oh, and Lillie? Lillie is now 94 years old and hasn’t slowed down one bit. She has continued with her twice weekly exercise program—outdoors!