Originally created 02/11/99

Vintage tunes inspire senior workout



WASHINGTON -- Mirrored walls, a pile of hand weights, women in black shorts or apricot tights. Only the music is a tip-off that something is different. Out of a boombox oozes a smooth jazz melody from the Big Band era, a tune half a century old.

It's Frances Kornberg's favorite music, and her feet follow the beat effortlessly as she marches and glides in place behind teacher Lisa Clarke Bell. Kornberg and her classmates know the routine by now: Most of the 11 seniors lifting and stretching in unison with Bell have been showing up at this class each Tuesday and Thursday, week after week, for the past eight years.

For anyone who has trouble keeping New Year's resolutions and following an exercise plan, Bell's class offers a shining example of persistence. Its members -- who range in age from 60 to 80 and live in an apartment complex here -- have stuck together long enough to forge friendships, change lifelong habits and make tangible gains in strength and endurance.

There have been a few dropouts and additions along the way, even two deaths (neither, fortunately, during class). But most of the current participants have been here since the beginning -- and Bell marvels at how far they have come. "When I first started," she recalled, "a lot of them could not march. That was a big thing. It took months."

During class, Bell, 41, a tall, loose-limbed woman with short-cropped hair and elegant high cheekbones, segues into a dance routine as the music speeds up. She takes the class through a sequence that alternates a side-to-side "grapevine" step with a skating motion. Then she shouts, "Rocking horse!" and the students rock forward and back, raising their knees high.

"Lift to the front! Lift to the back!" Bell yells. "Start using those arms! Four more!"

By now they're puffing, and somebody complains that the basement studio is too hot. "The fan's already on!" Bell says. "It can't get any cooler!"

Over in the front right corner, Jack Wichorek, the only man in the class, utters an occasional groan as he bends and lifts, but nobody seems concerned. Pink-faced and sporting a flashy T-shirt, Wichorek looks slightly apologetic as he admits to a visitor that he attends five aerobics classes a week.

"It's therapy for me," he explains. "I had a blood problem, hemochromatosis" -- excessive storage of iron in body tissues. For a while, Wichorek said, he had to have blood removed regularly to get rid of the extra iron, but no longer -- and he credits his exercise regimen with helping him overcome the condition.

Most other participants don't move as vigorously as Wichorek, but they all try hard to follow Bell's lead. One woman, her muscle control affected by Parkinson's disease, executes each dance routine with tiny steps but perfect rhythm. The music pulses as Bell urges them on, building to a crescendo as she prepares to wind up the aerobic portion of the class.

"Go go go! Go go go! Four more!"

At last the music stops, and Irene Butcher fans herself playfully with one end of the small scarf tied around her neck. The students pace around the room, feeling their necks to find and count their pulses.

"Lift your chin!" commands Bell. "Chins!" someone shouts back, and everybody laughs.

Bell knows which participants are recovering from surgery and which one has a pulse that's artificially slowed by medicine for high blood pressure. (Some days, when the count is too high, she chides the woman for forgetting her pill.) She has helped a few through serious illnesses and has mourned the deaths of a class member who collapsed in Union Station and another who suffered a heart attack one afternoon outside the apartment complex.

She works on her students' posture and gives them exercises to keep their fingers flexible. "In spring, I take them on an aerobic walk through the neighborhood," she said. "In summer, we'll stay in the building because they can't take the heat."

They, in turn, inquire about her kids and fuss over her, even lending her clothes occasionally -- like a scarf to complement a party dress. "I know them very well," she said. "They think I'm their child."

Many of Bell's students worked hard most of their lives and never thought about exercise until after they retired. "I didn't have the time or energy," said Ethel Matheny, who worked as a nurse at Washington Hospital Center and ran up and down stairs many times a day.

They signed up for the class because it was convenient and inexpensive. Bell works for FitPhysique Inc., a Washington exercise studio that has a contract to conduct exercise classes in the studio at the apartment complex. Because the class for seniors is subsidized by the complex's management, members pay only $10 for 10 sessions.

The choice of music is also key, Bell says. "I use swing music, things they can relate to. They hate today's music, rock and rap. Occasionally, someone leaves the wrong tape in the machine and they say, 'What's that you're asking me to move to ?' "

Participants say they also enjoy the companionship.

But perhaps the greatest benefit, Bell's students say, is the way they feel. Six months ago, Bell introduced three- to five-pound weights into her exercise routine because she felt her seniors had gotten strong enough to take on a new challenge.

"I thought maybe they'd be able to do some simple reps with the weights," she said. "They've been doing really well."

As the class winds down, Bell takes her students through one final set of stretches. They hold on to a waist-level bar that runs along the walls and stand on one leg, grasping the other foot and stretching the front of the thigh. She spots a woman who is having difficulty doing the exercise.

"You're working up a sweat to get there? That's all right! That's what we came here for -- to try to work up a little sweat."