Smile Politely

Golden Girls do aerobics

How would you like to be sporty and spry not just well into your fifties — but well into your late eighties and more? The Golden Girls taking aerobics classes at the Stephen’s Family YMCA in Champaign are doing just that. Char Houts (86), Mary Graham (81), and Phyllis Dean (75) have have taken the same hi/lo aerobics classes from teacher Rena Leake (55) for more than twenty-five years.

When I interviewed these three, bright, elderly students at the new YMCA in Champaign earlier this month, they had just come from their hour-long aerobics class together, and thus they were refreshed and excited to tell their stories of how they keep in shape. I found them, happy, healthy, and cheerful. They had gray hair and happy faces which they all attributed to their friendship with each other, and with their long-time teacher, Rena Leake.

The Golden Girls had stories of how when they had started aerobics at the old YMCA near Downtown Champaign over twenty years ago. Dean said, “We went through many bad teachers until Rena.” Graham chimed in, “It’s bad when the teacher can’t keep time with the music.” But when Leake came along to teach at the YMCA around her age of thirty, the students loved her. The women said their reason for staying with the program all these years is having Leake as a teacher.

Graham and Houts remember Leake bringing along her toddlers to watch the classes many years ago. Now they note that Rena’s son is a grown man of twenty-two, with her daughter being a bit older than him. The times have certainly changed. Houts mentioned that it was “100 degrees in the summer in the old YMCA gym.”  She cherishes the air-conditioning in the new Y. Graham said there was little heat in the winter in the old days. Houts agreed, “We left our coats and gloves on during classes all those years.”

The Golden Girls seem to finish each other’s sentences they are such good friends. I asked what they love about Leake’s classes. “It’s fun!” said Dean. “It makes you feel good,” replied Houts. Graham said life exercising is like “a roll of toilet paper — you just keep on rolling along.” The women like that they are close enough with each other that if one of them does not show up at class, the other two will call and check on their friend.

Other reasons Houts, Graham, and Dean keep going to their YMCA aerobics classes is that Leake gives alternative levels and individual attention to each student depending on their needs regarding health, stamina, and/or injuries. “I’ve been having trouble with a pinched nerve in my back,” explained Dean. But she continued, “Rena includes everybody.” In fact, when I asked if there are any drawbacks to doing aerobics at a later age, they agreed there can be some aches or pain, but “you just work through it.” As for future goals for the women athletes, Dean said, “I am going to keep at this as long as I can — as long as Rena comes.”

I also spoke with Leake as she came out of teaching one of her fifteen classes a week, this one a Zumba Gold at the Champaign Park District’s Springer Cultural Center. She has taught aerobics for over thirty years, and is currently teaching at the Stephen’s Family YMCA the Champaign Park District, The Savoy Recreation Center, and through Parkland College’s Community Education Program.

Leake has been such a good and admired aerobics teacher for all these years because she enjoys what she does. At the age of fifty-five now, she said, “I never want to retire.” She cited having seen a lady in her eighties teaching an aerobics class while sitting in a chair directing the students who were on their feet. “That will be me,” said Leake. Leake even continued teaching aerobics classes through both her pregnancies years ago. She had a scheduled C-section for her daughter, and so she told her class on Friday, “Tomorrow (Saturday) I won’t be here because I am having a baby.”

It is obvious Leake loves teaching. She said, “I like to make it fun,” and she added that it has been wonderful to make friends with wonderful students over the years.  She also feels that it is “a great way to stay fit myself.”  Leake is particularly inspired by making people feel successful. She said, “I want people to know that any class can be modified and to come and try it.” She added, “Just tell the instructor your needs.  There is something everyone can do.”

How does Leake keep up with teaching an average of fifteen classes a week?  “I don’t do hard core,” she said. “I spread it out.  I have made a rule for myself — never more than three classes in a row — that is my maximum.” Also, she explained that “all of the classes I teach are moderate intensity.”

Like Graham, Houts, and Dean, Leake is also very pleased with the new YMCA. She, too, remembers working through the difficulties of the temperature in the old YMCA: “In the winter there was ice inside the walls, and in the summer it was sweltering.”  The windows stopped opening in the summers in the old gym and there were even no ceiling fans. Now, at the new YMCA, they have a good sound system instead of using an old boom-box.

Today, there are certainly many climatically comfortable places in Champaign Urbana to take aerobics with Leake. Her classes continue at the YMCA, and she will also be transferring May 19 from the Downtown Champaign’s Springer Cultural Center aerobics rooms to the new Champaign Park District’s Leonard Center pristine facilities. The new sign up dates for these summer Champaign Park District’s aerobics classes end beginning Monday, May 12th, (students have to sign up one week ahead of the classes that begin May 19th) at the Leonard Center.

Throughout Champaign, there will never be a dearth of zumba, forever fit, baby boomer aerobics, and senior strength classes to take from leake at the many venues where she teaches. Times have changed over the years.  According to Mary, Phyllis, and Houts, students did not have to show an ID or pass to get into the old YMCA when they first started attending years ago. “It was on the honor system,” they said. Now, students purchase memberships or courses, and from Rena, an aerobics participant will always get a great workout.

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