Taking fitness to new level

Like most aerobic instructors, Phyllis O’Donnell can work out for an hour without missing a beat.

But O’Donnell is not like most aerobic instructors.

At age 83, she has more energy than some 20-year-olds, and women decades younger than her have been known to drop her class because it is too exhausting.

Three mornings a week, she leads about a dozen women in an hourlong routine at Building II Athletic Club in Altoona.

The spry senior has been leading classes for 11 years and developed the routine using exercises she picked up while taking classes at numerous gyms in the area beginning in 1980.

At the time, she would pass the Roman Health Spa while taking her youngest son, who played for Altoona Area High School, to football practice. She decided to join the gym and tone her body while waiting for him.

“I started exercising 33 years ago, and I never stopped,” said the volunteer aerobics leader.

Actually O’Donnell has been moving her muscles since she was a child. She grew up in Sinking Valley during the Great Depression and had to walk everywhere, including school. She said the bus only came through the valley the year after she graduated from Altoona High. She would hitch rides home with Pennsylvania Railroad workers who lived in the valley.

At Building II, the routine involves working with an exercise ball and weights, an idea O’Donnell incorporated into the program after the gym was damaged by fire five years ago.

O’Donnell said the class was temporary moved to the Snap Fitness facility, and it had exercise balls. Although she had never worked with them, she found a way to add them to the workout which also include aerobics, leg lifts, abdomen exercises and finishing with stretches.

“We stretch for 10 minutes so no one has soreness when they leave,” she said.

The cool down is a welcomed relief after 50 minutes of the women putting their muscles through their paces.

“I zoom you right through it,” O’Donnell said, recalling classes where instructors would stop and have the class rest for five minutes. “I don’t like to rest.”

“She has so much energy,” said Loretta Holmberg, 50, a member of the class. “She looks great. I want to be like her when I am 83.”

Holmberg believes the workouts are part of O’Donnell’s secret to being so healthy.

O’Donnell credits her drive to keep fit with helping her recover from surgery for breast cancer and radiation treatment in 2002.

Not only did she not stop exercising, she ended up teaching the class. The instructor quit two weeks after O’Donnell’s surgery.

The gym where she was a member at the time asked her to teach. Although she said she had sailed through her surgery, she begged off, knowing she had radiation ahead of her.

A member of the staff at the gym asked her to at least try it.

“That’s when I realized how important exercise was,” she said. “I taught class all though radiation treatments.”

Janet Stitt who is 27 years younger than Holmberg can attest to the value of the consistent workouts.

“It keeps you limber,” she said. “You come in here with an ache or a pain, but it goes away.”

Virginia Seidel of Altoona stumbled across the class by accident. She was working out in Building II’s gym downstairs and decided to observe the class.

“I decided to stay,” she said. “I love it. It’s a real motivator.”

She likes working out with the close-knit group.

“If you don’t show up, they want to know where you’ve been. You get a phone call,” Seidel said.

Janet Rice, 82, of Hollidaysburg said she and O’Donnell started exercising together years ago.

“Phyllis is wonderful. She can do just about anything,” she said.

Rice opts to rely on a small sofa rather than an exercise mat when the rest of the class hits the floor. Being able to sit allows her to adjust the workout to her body’s limitations, because she has had two knee replacements and three broken vertebrae repaired.

“If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know what to do,” said Rice. “It [aerobics] keeps me going.

Janet Weyer, 71, of Altoona was encouraged to exercise by her husband after she had a knee replaced 41/2 years ago. He told her about the exercise class at Building II.

“Virginia [Seidel] and I came up to watch her one day, four years later we are still here.”

“It’s a pretty good workout,” she said.

Suzi Behe, 64, of Altoona is a newbie. She, too learned about the class through Seidel.

“Phyllis is a good motivator,” said Behe, who joined the group three years ago. “She amazes me. A woman her age [leading aerobics]. She seldom takes time off.

On the rare occasions when O’Donnell isn’t there, the class still goes on.

One of the class members pops in a recording of O’Donnell in action.

The leader’s movements were originally recorded by O’Donnell’s dentist, Barbara Thaler. Because of her schedule, Thaler needed a way to exercise at home the two days she can’t make the class and has her own copy of the video.

“It’s definitely a workout,” said Thaler, 43, She said sometimes her sons, 10 and 11 try it, and they have a hard time keeping up.

Thaler said the routine tones the whole body and builds muscle mass.

“She’s such an inspiration,” Thaler said. “We all look up to her.”