YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

An Exercise in Friendship

Nearly 20 years after their first aerobics class, a group of women still gathers, driven by the desire to keep sharing their lives.


Laughing and joking, 11 women array themselves around the pool of Lorraine Woolsey's West Los Angeles home and begin their aerobic routine to the soft pop of Abba singing "I Believe in Angels."

It's a ritual that the group--whose current members range in age from 53 to a hale 84--has maintained twice a week for almost 20 years.

Indeed, in an era when even the best-intended exercise regimes often fizzle after six weeks, an aerobic angel has hovered over these Westside women for an entire generation, leading them through leg lifts and arm rotations, abdominal crunches and mule kicks, for an hour twice a week.

When they first came together 18 years ago, the women would pool their funds to hire a baby-sitter for their kids. Now most of them are grandparents. The "group," as they call it, has seen them through middle age and beyond menopause, and today the conversations are more likely to revolve around their medicines, empty nests and vacation plans than potty training and teen curfews.

And when the hour is over and they've wiped the sweat off their brows, the women sit down for coffee, chat and--gasp!--cookies.

Isn't that counterproductive?

"No!" chorus the women. "That's why we exercise, so we can enjoy the finer things in life, " says Ursula Myer, with a laugh, a sporty and youthful 64-year-old whose husband is a former pastry chef for the Brown Derby restaurant.

(Lest you think Myer too much of an epicurean, she also walks and does yoga several times a week.)

"Every time I'm on a diet, I don't eat the cookies," adds Woolsey. "You can take one or you don't."

What has kept them together for so long?

Even more important than the exercise, the women say, has been the friendships forged over two decades of working out together and their post-exercise "therapy sessions" that leave them lingering over java for two hours or more.

"The camaraderie is really strong--it's sort of a sisterhood," suggests Rosie Berson.

"It's the after-class time that has kept us together," confirms Joan Whitten. "You can discuss when you're mad at your husband and your kids. You can inquire who has a good plumber or a jeweler. We've been through weddings, births, deaths."

Members say the group also offers an important venue to share medical information and pool experiences about everything from new estrogen replacement drugs to osteoporosis and the value of alternative health measures such as magnets.

Experts say all that socializing is probably what's kept the Westside women together over all those years.

"We find that individualized programs are not very successful and very few people continue on their own," says Robert Wiswell, an associate professor of biokinesiology and physical therapy at USC. "The programs that are successful are those that are done in a social setting and usually supervised. . . . These women may not be exercising at the highest level to lose weight but because of the social value, the effect on mood and their well-being; all those things would explain their positive attitude and the reason they continue."

Wiswell says a recent study at the USC Gerontology Center that looked at the impact of exercise on mood found that those exercising in groups felt better about themselves whether they were doing vigorous walking or merely playing shuffleboard.

"It wasn't the level of exercise; it was that they were with people doing things," Wiswell explains. "It's a great example." If you want to be successful, he says, exercise with a friend.


The genesis for the group began much as others do. A number of the women, who all attended the Village Lutheran Church in Brentwood, signed up for an exercise class in 1981 taught by longtime aerobics instructor Patty Clark. The cost: $3 per person.

Initially they worked out in the church hall, but when it got stuffy one summer 14 years ago, they decided to move the workout to one of their homes so they could do water aerobics in a backyard pool.

When summer ended, they found they liked exercising outdoors so much that they kept doing it. Over the years, high impact has given way to low. Jogging has become brisk walking around the pool. Target pulse rates have dropped from 160 at peak times to between 90 and 130.

As arthritis set in and jumping jacks became a strain on aging knees, Clark modified the routine, tailoring it to their changing needs. They still do pelvic lifts and other movements they refer to with glee as their "sexercises."

But you won't find step, indoor cycling or Tae-Bo here. These women like their routine and haven't tinkered with it much since Ronald Reagan first became president.

"We do a lot more stretching and warmup than we used to," explains Clark, 56. "They like their dance steps. It makes them feel good to exercise, but at this point, they really come for each other and the sharing afterward."


Los Angeles Times Articles