College ‘Fitness Family’ Celebrates Health

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2017 17:34

Paul Becker, 95, works out in Columbia College’s Lifelong Health and Fitness Program.

Loren Whittle credits the Lifelong Health and Fitness Program at Columbia College with no less than keeping him alive and kicking.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for this class,” says Whittle, 82, who has attended morning workouts at the college’s Oak Pavilion since 1991.

“Three days a week for 25 years,” the Angels Camp resident says proudly. “I wore out a couple of cars coming here.”

Founded by college fitness instructor Bob Gibson in the 1970s, the fitness program is in its 41st year. Morning and evening classes are offered; most retirees work out early, while college students and working people favor evening hours.

Unlike most college offerings, the Lifelong class is non-credit and can be taken over and over, allowing seniors like Whittle to continue enjoying the benefits.

Loren Whittle, 82, works out.

“It’s an affordable place to continue lifetime fitness,” says instructor LaDeane Hansten, 49.

Whittle began his regimen following a heart attack in 1991 after retiring from his job as a PG&E executive. “My doctor told me, ‘If you don’t get in an exercise program, don’t come back,’ ” Whittle recalls. “He still asks me if I’m in an exercise class every time I have an appointment.”

After surviving a battle with liver and lung cancer about four years ago, Whittle says he is now fit as a seasoned fiddle.

The class meets from 6:45 to 7:50 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Its 40 or so members range in age from 17 to 95; most are over 50.

Paul Becker, 95, is Whittle’s exercise partner and oldest in the class. A former dean at the college, Becker joined after bypass surgery in 1983, and has been in the program longer than anyone. “My cardiologist said, ‘Just keep up that workout you’re doing at the college. It’s working.’ ”

Becker also appreciates the companionship, which helped after his wife of 38 years died in 2015. “After Sunny passed away,” he says, “it really made me feel better to go to the class.”

In addition to the two workouts Hansten posts each day (one slightly more strenuous than the other), there is a “PB&L Workout” – for Paul Becker and Loren, deemed class characters.

Activities are group-oriented and students “can adapt to what they need to do physically,” Hansten says. Workouts may include pickleball (a combination of badminton, tennis and racquetball), use of a wide selection of exercise equipment, laps on the indoor walking track on the pavilion’s second floor, or campus walks.

“We have that beautiful lake (San Diego Reservoir) to walk around, and we’re rebuilding our parcourse, which is now called the Fitness Trail,” says Mike Fabry, 61, an instructor since 1983.

Each class begins with a warmup to lively music and concludes with a cooldown. It all adds up to “a little cardio, a little strength, a little stretching,” Hansten says.

Class members stretch.

On a recent Friday morning, Whittle took to a rowing machine, which he says is good for “just about everything,” then used an arm crank for upper body strength and flexibility. Workouts aren’t always fun, he says, but the payoff is worth the effort.

“Sometimes you don’t want to come, but when you get all through it, you feel good,” Whittle says.

When class is not in session, Whittle walks two miles six days a week in and around Angels Camp, where his pioneer family has lived since the Gold Rush. As a benefit of the walks and college workouts, he was able to walk many miles while touring Italy last fall.

A widower, father of two, grandfather of five and great-grandfather of three with more on the way, Whittle intends to keep the pace. “I’ll do it until I die or I can’t do it anymore, whichever comes first.”

He’s not the only die-hard fan of the program.

“This is absolutely one of the most valuable things for a community college to offer,” says classmate Karen Ethier, 72. “It’s not just a physical fitness class … there’s so much emotional support.”

“It’s a great service for the community,” adds Harry Nakamoto, 84, “especially senior citizens.”

Says Phil Haydn-Myer, 70: “I’m in better shape now than before I had my heart attack. There is a fountain of youth – keeping active.”

It was a federal notion of “keeping active” that helped get the lifelong fitness ball rolling at Columbia in 1976, when Gibson was a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness.

“One of the programs was called Active People Over 60,” recalls Gibson, 86. “We got information (and funding) from the feds on starting a program, but didn’t know how it would be received.”

The first fitness classes were held at the National Guard Armory next to Columbia Airport, a makeshift gym shared with the college’s basketball team. “We didn’t know if even one or two people would come out,” Gibson says. “We had 55 show up the first day.”

Eventually, he says, more than 1,000 people per week were taking part. Thousands more have participated since, notes Karen Yacovetti. Now retired after helping with the program for 28 years, she worked with instructors like Gibson, Josh Bigelow, Fabry and Raelene Juarez.

The class was so popular that Tuolumne County built a path along Springfield Road to help keep class members safe.

“I appealed to the county, and before I knew it, they widened that shoulder and put in a pedestrian lane,” Gibson recalls.

He says an area quarry also rerouted its trucks for the safety of class members.

Gibson built on that early success, writing programs for cardiac fitness while on sabbatical in the late ’70s to earn a doctorate in cardiac and exercise rehabilitation from U.C. Davis.

“I was given kind of a carte blanche … go get ’em, Bob,” Gibson recalls. “Not many educational institutions would have done that. I feel very thankful to Dusty Rhodes and Dean Cunningham (former college presidents). They saw a good thing and let me run with it.”

The program is an impressive legacy for Gibson, who retired in 1993. The east end of Oak Pavilion’s first floor is named the Robert “Bob” Gibson Fitness Wing. The distinctive, dome-shaped pavilion in the southwest corner of the 280-acre campus opened in 1991 and serves as home to the college basketball and volleyball teams.

About the time the pavilion opened, the program got a political boost: The state gave the go-ahead for community colleges to offer non-credit, repeatable courses.

The decision also benefited Columbia’s adaptive/rehab fitness offerings, which help with cardiac maintenance, weight control, back care, diabetes, pulmonary management, post-surgical rehab and more. Physician approval is required for Adaptive PE, which offers individualized workouts.

Six sections of adaptive/rehab classes were offered during the spring 2017 semester, most in the morning, and about 175 students took part with credit and non-credit options available.

Both programs explore what Fabry terms the “five components of fitness” – flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular health and balance (falling is a large and legitimate fear for many seniors).

“People go home with a little bit more than just a workout,” Fabry says. “There’s a cognitive benefit as well.”

College support for the lifelong and adaptive programs is strong despite state funding cuts that have reduced staffing, Juarez notes. The sense of community the classes have created is equally strong.

“We have,” she says, “a fitness family.”

Whittle (left) and Becker enjoy workout camaraderie.

Find your fit at Columbia College

Columbia College offered four sections of the Lifelong fitness class, HHP (Health and Human Performance) 300, during the spring 2017 semester. Lifelong fitness students are encouraged to register before the semester begins, but may join during the semester with permission from the instructor.

Adaptive/rehab (HHP 303) students may register anytime; physician approval is required.

Limited summer 2017 sessions in both programs are offered from May 1-July 6. The fall 2017 semester begins Aug. 28. Cost is $54 per 16-week semester – this includes the $24 student fee and $30 parking fee.

Online enrollment for both programs is available at In front of HHP there will be a “C,” which simply means Columbia in the online catalog.

First-time students (or those who have attended in the past but more than a year ago) can start by completing an online application. Click “Apply Now” and follow the onscreen instructions.

Students who need in-person help may call (209) 588-5187 or visit the Admissions and Records office on campus.

Copyright © 2017 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Kevin Sauls
By Kevin Sauls March 15, 2017 17:34
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