Mental fitness: group exercise at the intersection of physical and emotional well-being | Local News

LACONIA — Maria Cunningham, 86, and Rita Bell, 87, go to Zumba class together almost every day.

But for Cunningham and Bell, and the dozen others who are regulars in their class, Zumba — a type of exercise that combines aerobics with Latin-inspired dance — is much more than choreography.

Bell said the class kept her busy and the joy of other Zumba enthusiasts filled her own mind.

“Especially after everything we’ve been through – being afraid to see neighbors and friends -,” Cunningham said, “It’s so necessary.”

“It gets me out of bed in the morning,” said Cheryl Simmons, who attends the same class at the Laconia Wellness Center. “Even though I feel depressed, by the time I get to class and start, I feel so good.”

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, the purpose of which is “to raise awareness of the importance of mental health and well-being in the lives of Americans and to celebrate recovery from mental illness.” , according to the government’s holiday webpage.

For community members of all ages, group fitness in particular has been a way to improve mental fitness, emotional health, and social connections in addition to its physical benefits. These gains are especially welcome now, after a more than two-year pandemic that has demanded isolation, destroyed individual social networks, raised anxiety and increased overall stress.

Group fitness, whether in the form of formal instruction like Zumba or through more casual endeavors like walking and hiking, ticks many of the boxes that experts point to as practical for maintaining fitness. Mental Health. Mental Health America, a nonprofit advocacy group that pushed for the creation of the holiday in 1949, lists six methods in its “mental health toolkit”: Owning Your Feelings, Finding the Positive, Eliminating Toxic Influences , create healthy routines, support others and connect with others. Learn more about Mental Health America and Mental Health Awareness Month at

Group fitness can be a vessel for all of these practices.

Susie Normandin, a teacher at Yoga From the Heart on Canal Street in Laconia, started doing yoga because of chronic back pain. “I thought I needed to stretch,” she said. However, she quickly realized that the benefits she received from taking a yoga class went far beyond increasing her flexibility and said yoga had saved her life.

“I was so stressed that I didn’t even know how stressed I was,” Normandin said. “Yoga makes you pay attention to yourself… It made me realize that my pain was due to my body internalizing this stress. I was not injured. »

For Joye Rutherford, who has practiced yoga for decades, yoga is a gift she gives to herself. “It brings you back inside,” the nearly 80-year-old said. “By focusing on your breath, you have inner focus – which is normally the last thing we think about.”

“We use other things to numb ourselves,” Normandin said, “yoga helps in a gentle way to check how you’re doing.” For Normandin, yoga helped her deal with challenges in her personal and professional life, and she started teaching because she wanted to help others achieve the same benefits she had achieved.

Normandin’s teaching is to “own where you are” and to recognize your feelings.

“Yoga is not about poses,” Normandin emphasized. “Yoga gives you space to be kind to yourself.” Measured breathing, she says, is all that is required.

“It reminds me that I can stop and breathe,” she said. “If you can stop and breathe, you can go through anything. And the poses are just to show you that.

Rutherford said while yoga can be an individual experience for her, classes are a great way to feel connected to a group. “There’s a collective energy flowing through the room,” she said. Normandin echoed this, describing the atmosphere of support that emanates from the group “all going through the same experience, but in different ways”.

While group fitness can help adults in the community deepen their connection with themselves and others, for young people it plays a specific role in developing social and communication skills as well as training healthy habits early in life.

Amy Tripp, a physical education teacher and volleyball coach at Gilford High School, has spent a decade adding to the physical education curriculum to incorporate personal fitness, sports psychology and a generally more balanced approach to exercise.

“We try to equip students for the rest of their lives,” Tripp said. Having a regular movement routine burns energy, helps regulate and improve mood, and “gives kids the tools and confidence to keep moving for life.”

Even in more traditional gym classes, “PE inherently lends itself to collaboration, cooperation, and communication,” Tripp said. “It gives students a way to interact with their peers in a more relaxed setting. [than academics] demonstrate something”.

Tripp said she aimed to show students how they can use even a simple exercise to divert their attention from stressors, connect with others and be in the moment – ​​the need for which has only grown. during the last years.

“Students have been so locked in that they just want to participate and be with their friends,” Tripp said.

In a survey where Tripp asked students what they thought were the benefits of physical education, many respondents wrote things like “teaches me to be a better communicator,” “puts me in a better state of mind.” ‘mind’, ‘keeps me motivated’ and ‘helps me learn’. new exercises for the future” because they did things like “it’s good cardio” and “staying in shape”.

Even for local athletes who compete at a high level, camaraderie is at the heart of their training, their passion and their ability to thrive in their sport.

Maureen Nix, a member of the Lakes Region Triathlon Club, highlighted how group training supports her joy as well as her success. “I couldn’t do this on my own,” she says. “Whoever wants to try [triathlon] should find a group to train with because camaraderie is everything.

Celebrating the dedication of Bell and Cunningham, as well as Bell’s 86th birthday, Zumba-ers at the wellness center showed they had found not just a chance to move during the day, but a support group of people like-minded that feed each other well-being.

“They are our inspiration,” said Donna Harris, the youngest in practice that day, of the two friends. “They dungeon we To go.”


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