Fitness and Friendship in the Time of COVID-19

Sabrina Baker (left), our group’s trainer, encouraging us in a balance and weight exercise. Photo by James Protzman.


By Jane Brown

I don’t like any of the exercises – the squats, the side planks, the dreaded Burpees, or even the short jog up to the SUV and the karaoke back before a quick water break. I’m glad I don’t have a watch so I can’t tell how much longer the torture will go on. It’s so bad, I long for the 90-second plank because we always end with that.

And yet, I schedule my life around this twice-weekly workout. I even asked to get my COVID shot on a different day so I could be out on the cold, wet pavement challenging my 70-year-old body to do another set of bridges and crunches.

After 35 years of a mostly sitting-down career, this workout has me feeling fitter than I have since I was a teenager. I feel lucky to have the opportunity.

When my husband and I turned 65, we joined a club because our health insurance offered free “Silver Sneaker” gym memberships. My husband worked with a trainer at O2 Fitness, while I preferred the more social “Fit for Life” class comprising mostly other women. They were about my age and seemed to be having as much trouble as I did following the dance moves, lifting the heavier weights, and doing more than one full push-up.

I liked the 60s music our instructor played. Somehow, jumping jacks seemed more fun to the tune of “She Wore an Itsy Bitsy, Teenie Weenie, Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” Then I began to tire of the repetition and the need to re-stake a claim to a piece of the floor every time I showed up. Some women came early just to make sure they got their favorite spot – right next to the instructor in front of the mirror or in the back.

Because they were so diligent, on the rare days they didn’t show up, nobody dared encroach on “their spots.” We whispered to newbies to not even think about putting their mats down In someone else’s space. We are territorial animals.

But then came COVID, and our gym shut down. Bummer. We were at a loss. I tried to make do with walks and the stationary bike we’ve had in the corner of the garage for 30 years, but I needed the weights and the social pressure, too.

One day late last spring, my neighbor Donna asked if I’d like to join her for an outdoor exercise group. “Yes!” The group of four others were welcoming and encouraging, so I kept going and have been participating ever since. Our grunts, groans and complaints have become my main source of social interaction.

Sabrina, our leader, has been a personal trainer for almost half of her 40 years. She wears a different pair of great sneakers and creates a different sequence of exercises for every session, perfectly timed to end one hour after we start. No music, but that’s okay, we listen to the birds as we exercise in a neighborhood cul-de-sac.

One of our group, Lisa, has been working with Sabrina for almost 10 years. Lauren, a physician, bicycles from her house with dumbbells in her panniers. Jan drives down from Hillsborough. She’s also in Sabrina’s Thursday morning “bootcamp” group. “Bootcamp” is apparently even more strenuous than our workout.

Lauren Johnson celebrates her birthday in the cul-de-sac. Photo by Lisa Slatt. 

One day I made the mistake of saying that maybe I should be lifting more than the 10-pound hand weights I have because my new cast iron frying pan is hard to manage. So, Sabrina put 12.5 lb. weights in front of me. No point in my trying to buy any heavier weights – apparently all the home exercise equipment is sold out. But Sabrina carries whatever we forgot or need in her car. All we have to do is show up.

We’re thinking that, even when we feel it’s safe to go back in the gym, we won’t want to. It’s fun exercising outside. We are grateful for the distraction of dog-walkers and have favorite passers-by who applaud our efforts. We love when Romeo, a toy poodle, runs around our circle, planting kisses on our sweaty noses. The friendly Orange County garbage collectors always wave and give us the thumbs up. And while we’re doing leg drops, we get to watch the hawks, vultures, and jets soaring overhead.

Because our social lives are so COVID curtailed, we’ve become friends and even have celebrated our birthdays together – Donna brings the birthday candle hat, Lauren attaches balloons on her bike, Lisa and I make cookies, and Jan brings flowers.

And, just like when we were in the gym, we have our designated “spots.” No matter how friendly, we are creatures of habit. I hope this habit continues even after COVID.

Jane D. Brown, who writes a monthly column for The Local Reporter, was a professor in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media for 35 years. She and her family and pets live in Lake Forest.

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2 Comments on "Fitness and Friendship in the Time of COVID-19"

  1. Now I know what Jane has been up to on all those cold and dreary mornings this year while I’ve been holding down the home front. Quite admirable ladies!

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