My first observation as I walked into the Providence Down Manor dining room for a Thursday morning Strong Women exercise class?
How much fun everyone was having.
“The greatest thing about this class is that we laugh a lot,” said volunteer instructor Claire Culbertson, who leads the Thursday Strong Women class at the assisted living center.
The program at Providence Down Manor is one of several Strong Women classes in the Gorge, and one of three in Hood River County.
Strong Women and its counterpart, Strong Bones, are programs of the Oregon State University Extension Office (see info box for class details, page B10). At Providence Down Manor, classes happen Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9-10 a.m.; Culbertson leads the Thursday Strong Women class, and co-leader Connie Buttaccio the Tuesday Strong Bones class.
Classes are popular and attendance is growing. On this particular Thursday, about 20 women had gathered — a small group, Culbertson said. The women range from their mid-50s to 83. There is a nominal per-class fee to participate.
“I think overall, people of every age bracket are realizing and acknowledging how important exercise is,” said OSU Extension Service Assistant Professor of Practice Lauren Kraemer, who has been involved in the Hood River County program for the past seven years.
“Many folks know they need to exercise, but just don’t make it happen. Having many groups in many communities increases the accessibility to the classes. Not to mention the programs are highly affordable, so many of the usual barriers — cost, location, etc. — are avoided.
“(And) the accountability of a group really helps. If someone doesn’t show up to class, you can be sure someone will be calling them afterward to make sure they are okay,” she added.
Kraemer said the program was developed by Dr. Miriam Nelson, Ph.D., Tufts University, in the 1980s as a way to reduce and prevent poor health outcomes related to osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, being overweight and obesity, cardiovascular disease and the loss of strength, balance, and muscle mass due to aging.
“Dr. Nelson has written numerous books on the program and research she calls StrongWomen and it was adapted into a community-based program by the Extension Service nearly 20 years ago,” she said.
“While a handful of community classes are happy to accept men into their ranks, the class is geared toward women … Many middle aged and older women are going to be hesitant to walk into a gym, especially if they’ve never exercised or lifted weights before.”
Women also experience slips and falls at a higher rate than men, she said, another reason the classes focus on women.
“The big problem as we age is bone mass gets more brittle,” said Buttaccio. “This is an evidence-based program and great fall prevention.”
Women join the classes for many reasons, Kraemer said, “but the main one I hear is for their own health and because they’re ‘social exercisers,’ meaning they need accountability of a group to be successful.”
Culbertson and Buttaccio explain each exercise beforehand, along with alternative options, another element that helps members feel successful.
Kraemer has worked hard to recruit leaders from communities across the Gorge and to provide low cost training. Leaders complete an eight-hour course with Kraemer, a certified Strong Women ambassador.
Culbertson said that she’d never participated in Strong Women before becoming an instructor, but the classes have had numerous benefits, a sentiment echoed by class participants.
“I’ve always done exercise and knew I needed strength training,” said Culbertson.
“I used to go to the gym and learn all the machines for training, then stop going. This is the first time I come consistently because I’m doing it with a group. The time goes by so fast,” she said.
“I started on the east coast at the YW,” said Dolores Biondo. “I did all kinds of exercise and loved low impact exercise.” After moving to Hood River, “I joined the Sports Club — I’m still there — and then (Strong Women) came,” she said.
Strong Women classes are going on around the Gorge. In Hood River County, they’re at the following locations:
Mt. Hood Town Hall, 9-10:15 a.m. Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays
Cascade Locks City Hall, 10-11:30 a.m. Mondays and Wednesdays
Providence Down Manor, 9-10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays
For additional information, contact Lauren Kraemer at 541-386-3343 ext. 38258 or Lauren.Kraemer@or....
“I’ve made such nice friends.”
“Not only am I enjoying better health, strength and balance, but I really enjoy the camaraderie of this group,” said Doris Stevens.
“I have better balance,” said Carolyn Grossman. “I’m stronger. I’ve upped my weights by two or three (pounds).”
“I’m confident to do more activities,” said Connie Nagreen. “I just walked El Camino.”
“The real one!” chimed another woman, indicating the trail in Spain.
While the class is held at Down Manor, anyone interested may attend.
“Some (participants) are from Down Manor, and we’d like more to join,” said Culbertson. “Others are from the community.”
The group is a community unto itself — on the first Tuesday of the month, the women go to coffee after class to catch up and inform each other about upcoming events.
And recently, they met on a Monday to hike around Lost Lake.
“I’m thrilled at the program growth and interest over the years,” said Kraemer. “It is truly an amazing thing to go to the classes and see 60-, 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds all lifting weights together.
“There is such an amazing social connectivity, too, that results from groups,” she added.
“The success stories the women share with me are incredible.”