Get Fit, Get Friends

by Mar Johnson

Hold on to your gym socks. There's more to regular exercise than getting fit. Sign up for a class, or join a group, and you get a new batch of friends, too.

Years ago I saw an article in the local paper about some newfangled exercise called dance aerobics. People in the photos looked like they were having fun, and I was overweight and bored, so I signed up. Decades later, I'm still showing up. It's a lovely cycle to get caught up in.

On class day, as I dress in baggy T-shirts and knit pants, I look forward to seeing what my exercise buddies have been up to since we last met. We drift into the classroom, change into gym shoes, get a drink of water. I hear Beth tell Tommi, "Be careful of that knee, now." Mary Jo tells Ruby she missed her in class last Friday. You don't get stuff like that if you work out at home with a video or TV show.

Theresa, our instructor, walks to the front of the gym and punches the Play button on the boom box. A mid-tempo tune signals it's time to cut the chat and warm up; small clusters of people from the room's edge magically transform into rows on the wooden floor. It's funny how we all dance in the same spot each time, as if assigned by some aerobics goddess. A few easy stretches and shoulder rolls get the blood moving.

I smile to Beryl on my left as we stretch quads, doing the gym flamingo bounce. Following Theresa's lead, we reach toward the ceiling to stretch, and I remember the time I was at a funeral four states away and, considering time zones, knew my workout buddies were gathering right then. I missed them and knew that as soon as they saw my empty spot, they'd miss me, too.

Theresa ejects the tape and slaps in one to pick up the tempo. Leila lets out a "Woohoo" with a lindy hop in "Rock Around the Clock." The whole bunch of us lets off steam with a "Yeehaw!" in tandem with a box step for the "Two-Steppin' Texas Blues."

When we finish the number, Theresa asks, "Now where else can you do that?" Sometimes mid-dance she throws in, "Where are your abs?" or "Posture check!" to remind us this is more than a social club. If anyone allemandes to the wrong corner or goes left when everyone else goes right, we just laugh and say, "As long as we keep dancing!"

We move into a swing step for "In the Mood," and I marvel at the women here who are decades older than I - my idols, my mentors for graceful aging. If they can do aerobics in their 70s, with hip replacements, pacemakers and hearing aids, so will I. I'll bop all the way to the retirement village - and dance there, too.

Neoma leads the chorus of "Yays" when we hear the Beach Boys harmonize about Bermuda and the Bahamas for the cool-down. After that, tired and sweaty, we spread blue foam mats on the floor for a stress-relieving stretch in all the right places. The rows of mats scented with floor dust take me all the way back to the nubby, safe naptime rugs in kindergarten. We relax and stretch from fingertips to toes, wishing we could take a nap.

But alas, we must uncurl ourselves from the floor, stack the mats, change back into street shoes, and return to jobs, childcare, homemaking -- life.

But we'll be back. Three times a week, we'll drop by the gym to dance a few numbers. We'll take the weight control, healthier hearts, and stronger bones, you bet. But it's the friends that keep us coming back.

If you haven't yet found a group of exercise buddies, it isn't too late. It's never too late. Find them, check in with them often, and before you know it, you'll be a fit person living a healthy lifestyle, and best of all, you will be blessed with the gift of friendship.

Marlene Johnson is an Oregon-based feature magazine writer and co-author of the book, The Buddy Diet. You can reach her at:

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