Members Age 80+ Prove Fitness Can Last a Lifetime
By Dawn Medley
Four women. 358 years of life experiences. Nearly 80 years of combined membership at the STAUNTON-AUGUSTA FAMILY YMCA.
Virginia Martin, Opal Nelson, Ann Mitchell, and Betty Clemmer each have different workout routines, motivation, and fitness class favorites, but they share a commitment to staying active and an enthusiasm for life that runs deep.
“It’s no coincidence that they all have a youthful, vibrant presence,” said Director of Fitness Wendy Shutty.
“As mothers, grandmothers, wives, sisters, they take care of a lot of others in their lives, but they also make it a priority to take care of themselves,” Shutty added.
Group Fitness Instructor Avis Henderson counts Nelson as a fixture in her weekly Strength and Tabata classes, and she is perpetually impressed with her drive to “get out and move her body.” Henderson recognizes that Nelson and her peers who work out well into their 80s and 90s are “perfect examples” of one topic she is digging into while working on her ACE group fitness recertification.
“I have been reading about the benefits of continuing to push yourself, even as you get older,” Henderson said. One of her favorite statistics is from a book that is part of her coursework, Ageless Intensity. The text explains that sedentary adults can expect to lose 8 to 10 percent of their muscle tissue per decade after age 40, but that active older adults may cut that down to just 2 percent per decade.
“It’s important to listen to your body, of course,” Henderson added, “But we shouldn’t stop trying to hit our 80% max heart rate level just because we’re aging.”
Each of these four women have stories that could fill an entire newsletter, but we hope you are inspired by taking just a glimpse into their lives – and by their determination to stay active.
FITNESS REBOOT AT AGE 90
When Membership Director Alice Killian-Bosserman asked Virginia Martin for her birthdate while signing her up as a new member in July, she admits that her expression gave away her disbelief.
“I was prepared for her to tell me that she was a senior member – over 65 – but here’s this lively, smiling woman telling me that she’s about to turn 90 years old,” Killian-Bosserman said. “I just couldn’t get over that I was signing her up for first-time membership at that age.”
“To see somebody at nearly 90 who is committing to continuing physician activity in that way … it inspires everybody,” she added.
After years of being fairly sedentary while dealing with back and shoulder pain and an injury at another fitness facility, Martin’s excitement about being active and meeting new people as a Y member touches everyone she sees.
“My older sister, who is 95, goes to the YMCA where she lives in Pennsylvania three times a week, and she encouraged me to sign up. She even offered to pay for me!” Martin said.
A former teacher at several area elementary and high schools, Martin has already run into some of her students at the facility. The chance that she might see someone that knew her during her professional years is one of the reasons you’ll always find her well-dressed – most often in a bright, coordinated tunic and leggings – even when working out.
“I have a reputation to uphold, you know,” she quipped, explaining that she won a national sewing award in the early 1990s and constructed many of the dresses and suits that she wore in the classroom.
Although she does not have diagnosed arthritis, Martin has found that the twice weekly PACE (People with Arthritis Can Exercise) classes are at her ideal level, and she does self-guided workouts on strength and cardio machines on alternating days. She’s also looking forward to getting into the pool, maybe sampling an evening AquaFit session.
“I have just fallen in love with it here. I am blossoming now,” she said.
CONSISTENCY IS KEY
When you have been to the Y almost every weekday for the past 35 years, people come to expect that – like the treadmills and vending machines – you’ll be there without fail.
“When Opal’s not in class, we all wonder about her,” said Group Fitness Instructor Cathy Leonard. Leonard can only think of a handful of times over more than three decades when Nelson, 81, has not participated in her morning Fit for Life class, and each absence has had a good explanation.
“I remember one day when we were holding classes outside during the pandemic, and it had snowed the day before,” Leonard said. “We were able to clear space in the parking lot to have class, but Opal wasn’t there. When I caught up with her to ask her about it later, she told me she would work out in the heat, or wear a jacket if she needed to, but she drew the line at coming in the snow!”
Over an incredibly consistent span that started in the late 1980s, only a car accident, colon surgery, and a few illnesses have sidelined Nelson from her daily routine. She has tried just about every fitness offering at the Y, discovering that she was drawn to classes that have upbeat music and a lot of movement. Many years ago she settled on a line-up that includes Barre, Fit for Life, Tabata, Zumba, Strength Training, and Cardio Boxing.
“I try to work as hard as I can, and I enjoy every minute of it,” Nelson said, a smile parting her signature deep red lipstick.
“Whenever I talk to a friend or family member that I haven’t seen in a while, they always ask, ‘Do you still live at the Y?’ And I tell them, ‘Yes, I do!’ Because when I stop moving, then I stop living a full life,” Nelson added.
As much of a fixture in the building as she is today, Nelson knew little about the SAYMCA until her mid-40s, when her youngest son left home to join the Army. These days, she enjoys using her membership to access the local YMCA when she visits that son in California.
Nelson was prompted to participate on an almost-dare from her late husband. He secured her membership, but didn’t think she would continue for very long. She set out to prove him wrong – for years even accompanying him to another gym in the evenings after completing her own workouts at the Y in the morning.
When she’s not keeping the beat in class, Nelson can usually be found wherever there is live music in the area. Praise in the Park and Jazz in the Park, and the newly reopened Marino’s restaurant are a few of her favorite spots to show off her moves.
“Keeping active at the Y means that I can get out and do the other things that I love,” she said.
TAKING IT AT HER OWN PACE
Ann Mitchell has her late husband to thank for jump-starting her longtime Y membership tenure as well. At just shy of 96 years old, Mitchell is one of the SAYMCA’s oldest members, but she rarely misses the late-morning PACE classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
“When you live alone – like me – you really look forward to seeing the group,” said Mitchell, who often picks up her good friend, Betty Bonham – who recently reached her own 90-year milestone – for sessions in the Mind/Body Studio. “I perk up each day that it’s on my schedule.”
An asthmatic, Mitchell notices that she frequently takes her clearest, deepest breaths after a PACE workout.
“I still feel that euphoria after exercising, and that’s one of the things that keeps me coming back,” she added.
For the first 15 years after Mitchell and her husband moved to the area from Connecticut in 1990, she stayed fit by walking three miles a day in their neighborhood with a group of friends. The couple joined the Y together in the mid-2000s primarily to walk the indoor track, which provided a level surface that they could use regardless of the outdoor weather.
“When he died, I joined the PACE class. It has been a nice diversion…and it helps you remember what day it is,” Mitchell chuckled.
“I have had the pleasure of leading many students who are so dedicated to staying healthy and active,” said Peggy Smith, a PACE teacher for 16 years. “They come to class on a regular basis with a smile and a great outlook and the willingness to take responsibility for doing everything they can to maintain their health.”
SINK OR SWIM
In 1966, Betty Clemmer passed the swimming course required by Madison College – now James Madison University – in order to graduate and earn her teacher licensure. But let’s just say she was definitely not pleased with her grade.
Decades later, one of her student’s parents, an instructor at the SAYMCA, offered to teach her to “really swim.” So she signed up for membership, and her lessons began in the mid 1990s at the Stuart Hall School pool, which was used by the Y prior to 1995, when the facility opened at its current location on Coalter Street.
“I continued to swim at the Y after school during my career as a teacher in Staunton,” said Clemmer, who is now closing in on 93 years of age. “It was a wonderful gift of fitness and relaxation that she [her instructor Ruth Grover] gave me.”
These days, Clemmer is a regular attendee in Wall Yoga and Gentle Flow Yoga. In fact, Wall Yoga Instructor Sarabeth Johnson was so impressed with Clemmer’s ability to get into a challenging L-shaped pose with her feet on the wall that she nicknamed it “The Betty.”
“It’s not just her good health and being in good shape that inspires me – although those certainly do deserve recognition. It’s her ability to find the best in everything, to have fun, and to laugh a lot, even at herself sometimes,” said Johnson.
“I know that practicing yoga has saved me from many falls, which could be quite dangerous at this age,” she said. “I’ve learned how to grip my toes and improve my balance, which helps me when working in my rather large flower garden, a smaller vegetable garden, and even when picking blackberries.”
Clemmer is confident that anyone – at any age – can be active and engaged at the Y.
“The staff and other members are so welcoming, and they will help you find whatever activity level you’re looking for,” she said. “I always try to make a point to say hi and chat if I see someone new in a class. It feels good to encourage one another.”