Nothing Old-Fashioned About Fitness

Esther U'Ren was taking a leisurely walk near her home three years ago when she strolled into the newly built Balboa Sports Center in Balboa Park.

"I walked in and said, 'Where's your seniors' fitness program?' " U'Ren said. "They said they didn't have one because there was no one to teach it."

U'Ren, 60, had a quick solution. She volunteered her husband, Don, to run the program.

A retired Hughes Aircraft administrator, Don is a lifelong fitness buff. He played football, baseball and basketball at Marshall High and in 1951 played on Los Angeles State College's (now Cal State L.A.) football team.

With extra time on his hands after retiring, Don gladly obliged. Esther attends every class and she is his biggest fan. Don, fit and agile, doesn't look his 67 years.

"We need something as we get older, mentally," Don said. "If we don't exercise our muscles, they start to shorten and we get really stiff at this age."

Three times a week starting at 9 a.m., Don conducts hour-long, low-impact exercise and stretching classes for retired adults at the facility in Encino. Each session has 15 to 20 students and most are between 65 and 75. An eight-week package costs $40.

Working muscles isn't the only thing seniors get out of the program. It's also a fun, social outing for many of them.

During a recent class, two women chatted in one corner while stretching. In another part of the room, a couple of men poked fun at each other's hair.

And as Don instructed the group to do lunges a few minutes later, he joked and laughed often.

"Buns of steel they say in those tapes! So come on! You can do it!" he yelled.

Loud chuckles filled the room. The kick-back atmosphere, most students say, keeps them coming back. Some participants wear sweats and sneakers, others are in street clothes and dark shoes.

Anything goes as long as you show up. The most important thing, Don says, is making it to the class.

"It's absolutely wonderful and it's so much fun," said 75-year-old Norm Reisman, who has Parkinson's disease. "I feel so much better when I leave here."

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Charlotte Root, 63, was introduced to the classes by her childhood buddy, 63-year-old Jackie Waterman, who got started in the program to strengthen a damaged knee.

Now Root, like her good friend, is a regular. And she feels better than ever.

"I spent a whole year on the couch watching the Simpson trial and I thought I better get a life," Root said, laughing. "It's wonderful. I'm so glad I came."

Chy Nach, 63, learned of the program after spotting a newspaper advertisement a couple of years ago. At first she feared it might be a fast-paced aerobic class with lots of jumping and loud music.

When she discovered it wasn't, she persuaded her husband Bill, 66, to join. Now they're both loyal students and their lives have improved because of it.

"It does everything for me," Nach said. "I feel so limber. It's so great. Also, we all really feel like a family."

There are those who take the exercising seriously. Ted Novikoff, for instance, has lost more than 10 pounds since he started working out at the center.

Novikoff, 66, says the U'Rens distributed flyers to practically every house in the neighborhood when they launched the fitness program three years ago.

Novikoff figured it was worth a try, so he signed up. He has no plans to quit.

"I was too heavy and now I look great," the trim Novikoff said. "I've done exercises in this class I never would have done on my own. This is a big part of my life."

Don U'Ren said the class is the only one of its kind in the region that caters to senior citizens, which is why his students are so enthusiastic.

It's also why Don didn't hesitate to start the classes at the Balboa Sports Center when his wife mentioned it.

"Besides, I've always liked physical education and I figured after retiring I didn't want to play golf two years and die," he said.

Don runs regularly and is a member of the Basin Blues running club. His favorite endeavor, however, is helping other retired adults stay fit.

"I feel so good about this," he said.

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