Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Barbara Romero, 81, is usually the first one in the pool, decked out in a black suit with pink polka dots. “I’m the one who warms up the water for everybody,” she says.

Soon, more than a dozen more senior women join her for a thrice-weekly gab fest and aqua fitness class that has a history stretching back two decades.

“Doot, doot, doot, doot, let’s get together for a minute,” calls the longtime leader, Arlene Palumbo, declining to give her age.

“Cross that leg. Back, nine and 10, 11, 12,” she instructs.

Some in the class hold lane ropes during the workout. Others use the side of the pool or a floating dumbbell.

“The doctor wants you to get exercise,” says Adrienne Longley-Cook, 62. “We don’t overdo it.”

The class at the Mariner Square Athletic Club, a modest gym in the San Francisco suburbs, is about more than staying fit. The women — and a couple of men — offer each other both laughs and support through illness, the death of spouses and other life trials.

Of the club’s estimated 3,000 members, 656 are 62 years or older, and 76 are older than 80. In the class, the oldest participant is 101, though she doesn’t come as often as she once did.

Miss Longley-Cook is one of the group’s institutions. She has been a participant for four years, recently rejoining after a fall last year.

“When I came back, all I could do was walk back and forth,” she says. “Do what you can; that’s the key.”

Mrs. Palumbo says she hopes the Beijing Olympics will encourage more seniors to take on active lifestyles. The club’s general manager, Diana Thomas, wants to take the swim group’s enthusiasm a step further by pairing some of the swimmers out of the pool with youngsters interested in learning more about lifelong healthy habits.

“Fitness is a lifestyle, like brushing your teeth,” Miss Thomas says, noting that aqua fitness for seniors has caught on around the world. “The emotional factor is equally as beneficial as the physical activity.”

Mrs. Palumbo didn’t learn to swim until she was a young adult and newly married to her late husband, Anthony. He was stationed in the Philippines with the Navy in the 1950s, and she knew she had better learn to like the water. Soon, she was certified as an instructor and teaching other members of military families.

“I’ve been at this business for a long time. I’m a beautician by trade,” she says, quickly turning the attention to her students. “They’re pretty faithful. They’re very dedicated to the club, which makes me happy.”

Beverly Nason, 70, has just returned from back surgery. It has been seven months since the operation, and she is thrilled to be in the water among friends.

“It means a lot. We all work together and encourage each other to do it,” she says.

Dee Berry, 81, had complete hip replacement surgery two years ago. She has lost more than 10 pounds without dieting since joining the group a few months ago.

“It’s good therapy,” she says.

“Circle, higher, a little higher,” Mrs. Palumbo continues. “OK, reverse — five and six. OK, other side. … Mule kick. Mule kick. Mule kick. Other side, mule kick.”

Mrs. Palumbo passes out e-mail and address lists so all can keep in touch away from the club. Some in the class regularly eat out together and join in on vacations.

Shirley McKnight, 71, is dressed to the nines. Her multicolored suit, a mix of leopard print and bright pink, matches her pink-and-yellow pool shoes - and the pink highlights in her black hair. Not to mention her bright lipstick.

Miss McKnight is one of the longest-tenured members of the class at 16 1/2 years.

“I love exercise, period,” she says. “This is the last class I do. I do an aerobics class on land before I get here. I’m in here five days a week.”

“Tummy in, relax your neck. Shoulders in. Keep your chin in your throat and roll your hips from side to side. Deep breath,” Mrs. Palumbo tells her followers as the group warms down. “Thank you. Have a great day!”

Once they’re through, many move into the nearby whirlpool and continue socializing.

“That’s what makes it all worthwhile,” says Nancy Adams, who is nearly 80. “It’s a wonderful group because everybody’s here for the same purpose.”

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