Older Adults Embrace Personal Wellness at Local Fitness Studios

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United Tae Kwon Do Academy, Dogwood Studios and Eat the Frog Fitness students prove that agility is ageless

Master George Webb instructs students Tracy Black and Greg Randolph on martial arts form, improving memory and coordination through technique.

By Leah Berry | Photography by Susan Murray

Fitness With a Kick

Master George Webb, a sixth-degree black belt, has trained in and taught taekwondo for almost three decades. He’s been involved in United Tae Kwon Do Academy since it opened in 2005.

At 68 years old, he finds it hard to keep up with his long-held passion for running. George has competed in 12 marathons and 1,000 road races in his life. “As you get older, it gets harder and harder to get back to the point where running is fun again,” he says.

Now, he focuses his efforts on taekwondo, and isn’t planning on stopping any time soon.

George will always sing the praises of the sport, emphasizing that it’s not only a means to stay active, but also a way to use your brain while doing so. “Any activity is good for your mind, but this one requires a lot of thinking and involvement to keep your brain engaged,” he says. George feels better – physically, mentally and socially – since starting taekwondo.

George met United Tae Kwon Do Academy founder and president Grand Master Barry Partridge at a taekwondo nationals competition in 1998 and followed him to his studio, which was in Winston-Salem at the time. George commuted from his home Durham three times a week to train. When Barry opened United Tae Kwon Do Academy in Carrboro, George was glad to move with him.

George once taught 20 to 25 classes a week, but now only instructs older adult classes twice a week, during which students practice balance, coordination and some martial arts form. Moving at a relaxed pace, his lessons utilize techniques that will keep the body and the brain sharp.

George became close personal friends with Barry over the years and describes him as someone to admire. He says the studio demonstrates a familial environment. “People come there and stay there,” he says. “If you don’t show up, they’ll call you to make sure everything is OK. They want you to be a part of it.”

The students at United Tae Kwon Do Academy range in ability from those simply wanting to work out to elite athletes. Yet, “there’s no pretentiousness,” George says. “That wouldn’t be tolerated.”

That mentality creates an environment of encouragement. “Everyone is only expected to achieve what they can achieve,” he says. “People quickly learn that they can do more than they thought they could.”

Recognizing that the sport is intimidating to many initially, George pushes anyone and everyone to try taekwondo. “It’s a positive learning environment,” he says. “We emphasize that mistakes are OK. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.”

Bouncing Back

Tom Traut and Karyn Traut have been active all their lives. Tom, a retired UNC professor of biochemistry and biophysics, and Karyn, a playwright, lived all over the country before settling in Chapel Hill in 1978. At the ages of 80 and 78, respectively, Tom and Karyn continue to feel the benefits of keeping their bodies moving. They walk 3 miles in their neighborhood every morning in addition to ballroom dancing, weightlifting, skiing, biking and even backpacking.

One of their favorite activities is yoga. As their interest in weightlifting grew, Tom and Karyn felt the need to improve their stretching. Yoga provided them with just that and so much more.

They believe yoga is the reason for their good health. Tom and Karyn are nimble and flexible and have never experienced an injury from something like a fall. In fact, they “bounce right back.” Tom says that, after just a year of doing yoga, the constant pain in his right shoulder has ceased.

The couple were so impressed with yoga instructor Sandra “Sam” Sather when she practiced at another studio that they followed her when she opened her own location, Dogwood Studio, which welcomes students of all ages who learn to become “a little more confident and comfortable” in their practice.

Tom and Karyn attend yoga every Friday morning – it’s the highlight of their week, they say, noting how the style of yoga is “very gentle for those of us who are older.” Sam is also a registered nurse, and her knowledge of the body is evident in her yoga technique. She is attentive to older adults in the class, teaching how to comfortably and easily do movements and even how best to get up and down from the floor. Sam also includes a portion on balancing in every session and 10 minutes of meditation, after which the students share what is on their mind, creating a sense of connection and empathy. The Trauts consider many of their fellow students personal friends, especially Sam. “Everyone at Dogwood Studio is so sensitive and caring,” they say.

The couple urges anyone who can move to try yoga. Tom, a skeptic at first, has become the biggest advocate of the practice. He and Karyn plan to keep on moving, thanks to the help of Dogwood Studio.

Setting the Bar

Mercy Ehrler works remotely and finds herself sedentary for most of the day. Going on a walk after work just doesn’t cut it for her – she wanted to find a gym that she could call her own and somebody to help instruct her on the best way to stay fit. Mercy believes that being active is an integral part of her life; it keeps her “young and vibrant,” feeling like herself and connected to those around her.

Mercy couldn’t find the right fit after trying other gyms; it wasn’t until her husband, Randy Ehrler, introduced her to Eat the Frog Fitness near Whole Foods that she fell in love – with the gym itself and her own fitness journey.

Mercy specifically loves how the workout is what you make it. “Your bar is set for yourself and not against the other people you work out with,” she says. Mercy says the fitness classes cycle between “de-load weeks” that focus on flexibility and mobility, and “peak weeks,” which involve the most intense workouts. This helps her get a good range of exercise, and never feels like it’s too much.

“It’s the best gym I’ve belonged to … ever in my life,” Mercy says. “It’s a place I want to go and spend time.”

In fact, she was there on her birthday, and when she broke her wrist several weeks ago, she was back at Eat the Frog two weeks after surgery. Mercy couldn’t imagine her life without it.

She says she’s always been an active person – she never played sports, but taught various fitness classes. Before Eat the Frog, she was unmotivated in pursing her fitness journey and had been for a while. “I just turned 59 years old, but I feel better than I did a decade ago,” Mercy says.

She also found a community at Eat the Frog, one of the reasons why she believes the gym is so successful and why she can’t stop raving about it. The people there know her and call out her name when she walks in. Owners Robert Parker and Darrick Fu often host sip and paints, holiday parties and organized hikes, cultivating a community that is welcoming and caring. Individuals in classes range in age from 20s to 50s and older. “Any time you can connect with someone about a passion, age doesn’t matter,” Mercy says.

Mercy’s calendar has her scheduled to go to the gym every day at 5 p.m.; her goal is to make it four times a week, and, thanks to motivating coaches and inspiring classes, the studio has helped Mercy stay consistent with her fitness goals.

Her advice to those wanting to start their own fitness journey, or perhaps get back into it: “Walk before you run,” she says. “… Making the decision to go to the gym is the first step. And Eat the Frog is a great place to start.”

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