In 1992, Dubuque resident Lynn Hawks began attending a local exercise class for older adults, then housed at Loras College.

“I retired from John Deere and went right there,” she said.

At the time, she was one of the younger women in the group. Now, at age 91, she is the oldest, but she remains a regular at the thrice-weekly Spartan Wellness (SWELL) Senior Wellness Class, now held at University of Dubuque.

The popularity of the group, led by former Dubuque Senior High School boys track and cross country coach Gary Wittman, has soared since it began meeting at UD last fall.

“One person brought three more, and three more brought three more, and now, here we are,” Hawks said, indicating the more than 100 adults bustling around the indoor track at Chlapaty Recreation and Wellness Center on Wednesday morning.

Wittman started teaching the exercise class 35 years ago at Loras and continued to offer an outdoor summer class at Flora Park in Dubuque when he began teaching at Roosevelt Middle School.

He said the class had about 25 regular participants in October 2021 when it moved to UD, where he is now an adjunct instructor. Today, he has capped the group at 200 students, with a waiting list.

The SWELL class is held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday in UD’s recreation center, or outdoors on the nearby Chalmers Field if weather permits.

A steady downpour on Wednesday kept the group indoors, but the participants didn’t complain. Many wore blue-and-white T-shirts with the words “Be Well, Be Swell” on the back as they walked briskly around the indoor track for 30 minutes, chatting with friends.

“People that retire can become isolated and lonely, and that can lead to all sorts of medical problems like high blood pressure and heart disease,” Wittman said. “With this class, people come here to see other people, along with the exercise, and that helps fight loneliness and depression.”

At 8:30 a.m., his students made their way to the center of the space to begin exercises.

“We’re like cows — we all go to our same favorite spot every time,” said Bob Knepper jokingly, as he grabbed his weights.

Bob and his wife, Karen, began attending the SWELL class about a year ago.

Karen said the meditative aspect of the tai chi practice that Wittman incorporates into the lessons has helped her maintain a calm mindset during stressful times. Bob feels the regular exercise has aided his recovery from back surgery and improved his balance and flexibility.

“It’s a way of life, a community,” he said of the class. “Everybody’s here with the same goal of being healthy and feeling more connected.”

Class intern Stone Engle, a recent UD graduate, kicked off the class with some weight exercises and stretches, from reverse flies and triceps extensions to lunges and calf raises. Participants modified the movements as necessary, some using small weights and others going without.

Wittman then took the lead, guiding the class through a series of tai chi movements. Accompanied by quiet instrumental music, the group silently followed his lead.

After nearly 30 minutes, Wittman instructed the participants to roll out their exercise mats and called out a range of stretches and abdominal exercises for them to complete.

“Reverse bicycles, hands under your seat!” he called, and a hundred pairs of legs pedaled the air in unison.

Some yoga stretches and a quick cooldown game of “Simon Says” finished off the class. A few participants rolled up their mats and departed, but many stayed for another brief walk around the track.

Don and Wilma Sanders, of Dubuque, have been with the group since its earliest days more than three decades ago. Wilma, 89, said it is a constant part of the couple’s weeks.

“It keeps us moving and getting out and about, and we’ve made plenty of friends through this group,” she said. “I think that’s part of keeping you younger.”

Ann Mulligan began attending the class 15 years ago, while her friend Marge Reidy joined this January. The two Dubuque women praised the facility and the camaraderie of the group.

“You realize that this is good for you, and it’s part of your life now,” Mulligan said. “You get up in the morning, and you come to SWELL class.”

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.