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Strength in numbers

It's easier when fitness is a group effort.

They call her the "drill sergeant." While this certainly gives you a bold first impression, Diane Finley doesn't consider herself much of an expert in combat training or any other strenuous activity. Finley leads a workout class called Fit & Flex at the fitness center in the northeast Iowa town of Elkader. For a town of about 1,200 people, the class has a loyal following of about 30 women, ages 60 to 87. 

Finley, 75, has no formal training or certifications. Three years ago, she was a class participant who would occasionally substitute for an instructor. Well, one thing led to another. "This is the longest I've subbed for a class," she jokes. "I just kind of took it on, because I need the exercise as much as everyone else." Finley earned the nickname "drill sergeant" because she clearly knows how to lead and motivate. Yes, she will yell orders to get her students' blood pumping and muscles flexing. But she also knows how to have fun and not take herself too seriously.

It's all in the extras

"My role is to push these women to do more than they think they can," says Finley. "We adapt exercises for people who have limits. But we always encourage each other to do what we can, and to keep moving."

The class meets for an hour four mornings a week. The first half of class includes stretching and cardio to get the heart rate up, and the last half includes resistance training using hand-held weights, bands, body bars and stability balls.

But it's the extras that keep people coming back.

For example, Finley peppers workouts with jokes and stories. Yesterday, she led a discussion about healthy fast food alternatives. Today, she shared facts about coffee and caffeine intake. They also collectively solve word puzzles and other brain teasers.

It's always about keeping it fresh and fun.

"We might have a theme day, or a day where we show off our socks," laughs Finley. "You really shouldn't wear boring white socks to this class," she jokes. During the World Series, the Chicago Cubs fans wore their brightest team socks and serenaded their classmates with "Go Cubs Go." 

They spend the last 10 minutes of class sharing the latest developments in their lives, giving each other encouragement, prayers and well-wishes. "It's all of these little things that make the class a community of its own," says Finley. "While we certainly want to be physically fit, it's the social aspect and fellowship that keeps us coming back."

Fit & Flex class photo

Using fitness bands and exercise balls, the Fit & Flex class gets moving. (Front row, left to right): Joanne Keleher, Deb DeShaw, Vanita Thomsen, (back row, left to right): Janice Posseuhl, Sally McGreal

Bringing in reinforcements

The women regularly invite guest speakers to class, including local experts, such as physical therapists, pharmacists, a message therapist, and a reflexologist to educate them about the latest in health and wellness. 

"Since most of us have some sort of health-related ailment, this class is an important source of support," says Finley. "There are women in here with fibromyalgia, diabetes, heart disease, sciatic nerve pain, back troubles, and knee and hip replacements. So, we use the class as an opportunity to teach each other, for example, about what type of exercises you might be doing in physical therapy, or the most effective ways to prevent back pain." 

Jaclyn Bormann, a physical therapist at the hospital in Elkader, is a frequent guest speaker at the Fit & Flex class. 

"The class actively helps my patients stay on course with exercise, strength and balance, plus provides them with information on all kids of issues, including incontinence, adaptive devices, and how to get off the floor in case of a fall, just to name a few," says Bormann. "All of this information is incorporated into the programming, which adds to its effectiveness. They have created a safe environment for any level of participant. I encourage my patients to try the class for the physical aspect of it, but also for the social camaraderie." 

While getting fit together, the women also connect on an emotional level. They have comforted each other through the deaths of spouses and loves ones. When one of the class members had breast cancer, the women took turns driving her 60 miles to her chemotherapy treatments. When she passed away, they mourned together. They make care packages for troops overseas, have foreign exchange students from the area speak to the class and participate in community activities together. 

"We also have our Elkader senior meal site involved, going to lunch there together twice a month to support their efforts, and to celebrate any birthdays," says Finley. 

Recently, one of the women's granddaughters, who competed in the 2016 Olympics, joined class and spoke of her experience on the bronze-medal-winning U.S. volleyball team. "It was so fun to hear about her journey, and of course, to pass around her medal," laughs Finley. 

Getting connected through group fitness

The Fit & Flex women agree that when it comes to small towns, the perception is that everyone knows each other. However, that's not necessarily true. "I didn't know most of these women before meeting them in class," says Finley. "Group fitness helps you get to know people you wouldn't normally have a chance to meet. Plus, when you work out regularly with someone, you get to know them on a whole new level. And of course, it gets you up and off the couch, beyond the four walls of your home."

How to be a good workout buddy

Whether you work out with one or two friends, organize your own small group or join an existing group exercise class, here are some tips for being a top-notch workout buddy: 

  • Touch base. Send reminder texts or emails, pre-arrange driving arrangements, if necessary, and offer wake-up calls if needed. 
  • Always be on time. Don't make your workout buddy wait for you. 
  • Push your partner. Reinforce workout efforts with praise and encouragement. 
  • Suggest new ideas. Keep it fresh with new routines to keep things interesting and prevent workout plateaus. 
  • Share goals. Hold each other accountable and repeat your goals daily. 
  • Keep your group informed. If you're sick, traveling or have other things on your schedule, be sure to tell your partner or group why you can't be there.
  • Check up on people. If someone isn't showing up, check in to find out why. 

Goal Getters

They did it, and so can you! A few women from Finley's Fit & Flex class describe how they are meeting their goals through group exercise.

Verna Lenth

In late 2015, I was in a car accident. After a couple months of physical therapy, several of my friends suggested joining the class. I decided to try it. I was hooked. The exercises supplement my therapist's suggestions, and, of course, the group of dynamic makes it seem like fun, not tedium.

Since I've been exercising regularly, I have more range of motion in my neck and shoulder. Prior to joining the class, I was reluctant to drive beyond a rural area because I couldn't turn my head to the left or right far enough to see oncoming cars at intersections. Now, I can turn my head and see in all directions. Also, I can reach and use the affected shoulder almost as well as before. 

I have more to work on, but overall, I've made so much progress in this class. I feel grateful to be a part of it. 

Patti Dillon

I'm 71 and I have been taking the class for five years. I have fibromyalgia and type 2 diabetes, so I really needed to ramp up my activity level. When I started taking this class, I could not raise my left arm above my shoulder. Now I can. I also lost 25 pounds and lowered by pain level. 

If I have to miss class I can tell the difference, physically and emotionally. Over the years, the people in this class have become good friends. These women give me a good reason to get up and drive the 12 miles it takes to get there.

The class fee is the best $20 I spend each month. We have three classmates over 80 years of age who participate. Their enthusiasm keeps me motivated every day. 

Ellen Collins

After taking a weight loss class at the local hospital, we were given a free month at a fitness center. I was relatively new to the area and didn't know many people, but everyone was so welcoming. Everyone is accepted at the level of agility they are at and encouraged to participate at the level they feel comfortable.

This group is a great motivator for me. I have needed physical therapy several times over the years, and being part of the group has kept me on task with exercises to strengthen my back or knees. Some physical therapy exercises have made it into our routine in class. 

What has kept me going for six years? The friendships, the genuine caring for one another, and the laughter. Of course, we also increase our stamina and core strength. This group has made my transition into the community easy, and I have made some lifelong friendships. 

women exercise accountability group

Left to right: Verna Lenth, Patti Dillon and Ellen Collins