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Counseling Psychology News

Exercise program for women 40-and-over going strong after three-plus decades

August 25, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

It’s not even 7 a.m. and 30 women, several of whom are 70-and-older, are already working up a good sweat inside Gym 2 of the UW-Madison Natatorium.

Bonnie Loughran leads the Early Morning Fitness class
Bonnie Loughran leads the Early Morning Fitness
class earlier this summer at the UW Natatorium.
Wearing a headset and wireless microphone, class instructor Bonnie Loughran demonstrates and talks the women through their workout while the Eagles’ “Take it to the Limit (One More Time)” pipes through some speakers.

Over the course of a 60-minute routine, the women stretch, work with light hand weights and bands, and use yoga and Pilate movements to build strength, improve balance and gain more flexibility. And when it’s all over, the women gather in small groups and chat before filing out of the gym -- most everyone with a smile on their face.

“Getting together with all these women is really fun,” says Mary Metz, a 74-year-old professor emeritus with the UW-Madison School of Education and a longtime class participant. “It’s a social network that you’re a part of, and that helps to keep you coming back. The workouts also make you feel better, and when you’re done you’re ready for your day.”

Bucky Badger Logo
The Early Morning Fitness class is held Monday
through Friday, from 6:40 to 7:40 a.m.
Welcome to the Early Morning Fitness class, a program administered by UW-Madison’s Department of Kinesiology that is for women age 40-and-over.

This fitness course’s roots date to 1980, when the university’s Department of Preventive Medicine started them as part of an osteoporosis prevention study.  At that time, the classes ran three days per week and mainly consisted of aerobic dancing.

Although the study ended in 1990, many of the women involved persuaded organizers to continue classes as a fee-based outreach program. Today, each class includes a warm-up, cool-down, balance coordination, stretching and flexibility work.  And on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the focus is on aerobic work through dance, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays the focus is on strength and flexibility work. Each class runs from 6:40 to 7:40 a.m.

“They work hard, but people are usually smiling after class,” says Loughran, who is an instructional specialist with the Department of Kinesiology.

Loughran -– who is a UW-Madison alumna, with undergraduate degrees in dance and physical education, and a master’s from the School of Education’s Department of Counseling Psychology –- hires students to assist with the class, with those helping out generally dance or kinesiology majors.

The Department of Kinesiology also takes advantage of the Early Morning Fitness program as it gives Kinesiology students the opportunity to observe the class to learn more about the aging process and fitness. The students also are invited to participate in the class in order to get a real feel for what these women can do and what adjustments are made for safety.

Those who take the class also can volunteer to participate in a fitness assessment once per year that’s administered by Kinesiology students under the supervision of their instructors.

Bucky Badger Logo
Members of the Early Morning Fitness class work
out at the Natatorium on the UW-Madison campus.
While the workouts are invigorating and many in the class report enjoying working with the younger UW-Madison students, it’s clear what keeps most participants coming back day after day, year after year.

“It’s really the group of fun and interesting people that keeps us going and keeps us coming back,” says Eleanor Rodini, 76, who has been involved with the class since it started more than three decades ago.

Kathi Dwelle, now 70, is another participant who has been with the course since the beginning. She explains how she used to jog but injured her foot. She was looking for a new way to stay fit when she learned that the UW-Madison’s Department of Preventative Medicine was recruiting women for two osteoporosis prevention studies, spanning 10 years in 1980.

She explains how, during that first year in the class, a 68-year-old aunt took the bus from Iowa to Madison for a visit.

“I remember how I was out in the yard planting bulbs and all she could do was sit on the couch,” says Dwelle. “My aunt never exercised and really had trouble moving around. My husband basically had to pick her up and put her on the bus when she returned home, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t want to end up like that.’

“Well, I’m still planting bulbs every fall and I’m now older than she was.”

Dorothy Nelson, who turned 86 earlier this month, still works as a guide for school-age children at the Madison School Forest.  She started taking the class in 1986 and continues today.

“You get in the habit of coming and getting up early, and then you have the rest of the day to do what you want,” she says.

To be clear, the early morning start time isn’t exactly easy for many of the participants. But all seem to agree -- it’s worth it.

Robin Chapman, 72, only started coming to the class in mid-June, and admits she had to revise her life in order to make the class work.

“I’m one of those people who used to stay up until midnight every night and sleep in a bit,” she says. “But when I saw the opportunity to be with this group of women and to get in my exercise, I decided it was time to make some changes. Now, my husband comes and swims (at the Natatorium) and I get my workout in and now we have our exercising in and have weeded the garden and done all these things before most are up and going. It’s wonderful.”

“There is still room for a few new participants” says Loughran.

The program fee is $500 per year. There also is a facility access fee of $220 for UW-Madison employees and $260 for all others. For more information email Loughran at

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