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Seniors Find Fitness, Fellowship in Workouts

Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Loping back and forth on a raised platform in a gym full of senior citizens in various stages of fatigue, Terry Robinson begins to lapse into Elvis-ese.

“Re-tuuurn to five, six, seven, eight . . . ,” he counts off softly to himself in the throaty Presley style as “Return to Sender” twirls away on a nearby turntable. Some of the exercisers who are bounding along with him grin and pick up their feet. It isn’t exactly high-impact Jane Fonda but the seniors, nearly a hundred of them spread across the floor of the gym in Leisure World, Laguna Hills, are faithfully keeping up with the dancelike movements being demonstrated by Robinson. This is their twice-a-week aerobics class, and they are determined.

“Stay with it,” says one woman, encouraging herself between puffs.

The song ends, and Robinson allows a short break. Ben Siminow, exercising in the front row, rocks back and forth to keep his leg muscles moving.

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“Terry’s a great, great guy,” he says. “The enthusiasm he shows is marvelous. Of course, he’s only 40. Some of these kids out here are past 80.”

Siminow himself is nearly 82. He has been attending the exercise classes at the Leisure World gym for almost 13 years. He says they have helped him maintain both muscular strength and tone, even after he had a heart pacemaker implanted in his chest 2 years ago.

He is one of an estimated 2,400 regular exercisers, most of them Leisure World residents, who generally show up at the gym twice each week for one of three levels of exercise classes provided through the emeritus program of Saddleback College in cooperation with Leisure World.

It is, Robinson said, an unusual cooperative effort between the college and the community in which Saddleback designs classes and provides qualified exercise instructors, and Leisure World provides equipment and facilities. The classes are free and open to residents of Leisure World and residents of other communities. Participants must register through Saddleback College. The partnership has been working for 10 years.

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The three levels of exercise classes--aerobics, a lighter calisthenics class and a still less-strenuous chair exercise class in which most of the work is done while seated--are perhaps the most visible and best attended of several health and fitness programs offered at Leisure World through Saddleback College. (Also available, Robinson said, are water calisthenics and therapeutic swimming classes, a weight-training class, an exercise class tailored for people with back problems, a lecture class on nutrition and weight loss, and individually designed exercise classes).

The various exercise classes are offered 5 days a week, and the equipment room adjacent to the gym is open 6 days for supervised individual programs and weight-training classes, Robinson said. (The equipment room houses such devices as a universal weight machine, treadmills and stationary bicycles). The programs are run by five Saddleback instructors, aided by six full- and part-time staff members from Leisure World.

Robinson, who is a professor of physical education at Saddleback and coordinator of the Leisure World fitness center, said the number of participants in the exercise classes has “increased tremendously” in recent years.

“Participation is very good. We have less attrition and greater participation than we would with a younger group, maybe because these people have more time. Also, in this age group, any participation makes them feel better. That’s one really nice thing about working with these people rather than 20- or 30-year-olds. You see a difference (in their fitness) right now. You can look at them and see you made a difference.”

Still, he said, the participants often show “a seeming endless variety of health problems” when they enter the program--"from cardiovascular to orthopedic to neuromuscular. And there are common emotional and psychological problems, depression being the most common. It goes with the territory.”

Physical examinations are not required as a prerequisite for enrollment in exercise classes, although “we make the students aware of what the classes are about and the possible problem areas they might encounter,” Robinson said. “Over the years, we’ve only had to turn away two people.

“By and large, they’re a pretty healthy group. And they’re great to work with. Each of them has a wealth of experience, and they don’t come with a lot of the trappings that young people come with. They don’t have a great drive to get ahead, for instance. It’s refreshing to work with people like that.”

Addie Zheutlin said her husband, Dr. Abe Zheutlin, “did a complete turnaround from the cerebral to the physical” when he started taking the aerobics class.

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“I’d been sedentary most of my professional life,” he said. “And when we came here in 1982, I decided to get into some action. It really does keep your mood up. It’s the kind of exercise that’s within healthy limits.”

Today, both Zheutlins attend one or more exercise classes each week, in addition to walking frequently in their neighborhood and occasionally making use of the equipment room.

For Ruth Lane, 72, the exercise classes she attends twice a week are both a physical and social event.

“I think people in our age group reach out to each other,” she said. “The people are very supportive. We’ll all take our little space (in the gym), and we know where we usually stand and we’re close to the people near us. When I see people 80 years old exercising like this, I think it’s wonderful. I can’t believe some of them get around as well as they do.”

Siminow said that he is “not the oldest in the class by any means. There are people in their mid-80s.”

Elsewhere in the Leisure World athletics and exercise programs are others who are older still.

Agnes Del Re, 90, has been making use of the exercise equipment adjacent to the gym for 17 of the 18 years she has lived in Leisure World.

“I still go every day and ride the stationary bicycle for 30 minutes,” she said. “I’ve got arthritis, and I don’t think I could get along without it. It keeps my legs going. It does wonders for me.”

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Another stationary bike aficionado is Louis Lassman, who will turn 90 next month. But Lassman doesn’t stop with the pedaling.

“I leave my house at 7:30 every morning and go down and ride the bike,” he said. “And from there, I go on to a machine that exercises my arms and then on to about three or four other different things.

“This is something new for me. I used to do a lot of walking, but I never took any (organized) exercises. And I feel 100% better than a lot of other people my age. They don’t believe the things I do. It’s all paid off beautifully.”


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