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Mental fitness: group exercise at the intersection of physical, emotional wellbeing | 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 near dozen other people who are regulars in their class, Zumba – a type of exercise that combines aerobics with latin-inspired dance – is about so much more than the choreography.  

Bell said the class keeps her busy, and the joy of other Zumba-ers fills her own spirit.

“Especially after everything we’ve been through – being afraid to see neighbors and friends –” Cunningham said, “This is so needed.” 

“It gets me up out of bed in the morning,” said Cheryl Simmons, who attends the same class at the Wellness Center in Laconia. “Even if I’m feeling down, by the time I get to class and get going, I feel so good.” 

May is National Mental Health Awareness month, the aim of which is to “increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives, and to celebrate recovery from mental illness,” according to the government webpage on the holiday.

For community members of all ages, group fitness in particular has been an avenue to better mental fitness, emotional health, and social connection in addition to its physical benefits. These gains are especially cherished now, after a more than two year-long pandemic that has demanded isolation, broken down individual social webs, sparked anxiety and raised overall stress. 

Group fitness, whether in the form of formal instruction like Zumba or through more casual endeavors like walking and hiking, checks a lot of boxes that experts name as practices for mental health maintenance. 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, creating healthy routines, supporting others and connecting with others. Learn more about Mental Health America and Mental Health Awareness month at www.mhanational.org/.  

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. She quickly realized, however, that the benefits she received from going to yoga class were far beyond increasing her flexibility and said that yoga saved her life. 

“I was so stressed that I wasn’t even aware of how stressed I was,” Normandin said. “Yoga makes you pay attention to yourself… It made me realize that my pain was because my body was internalizing that stress. I wasn’t injured.”

For Joye Rutherford, who has been doing yoga for decades, yoga is a gift that she gives herself. “It brings you inward,” said the nearly 80 year old. “By focusing on your breath, you have an inner focus – which is normally the last thing we are thinking about.” 

“We use other things to numb ourselves,” Normandin said, “Yoga helps in a gentle way to check in with how you are doing.” For Normandin, yoga helped navigate challenges in her personal and professional life, and she began teaching because she wanted to help others get the same benefits she gained. 

Normandin’s teaching involves “owning where you’re at” and acknowledging one’s feelings. 

“Yoga is not about the poses,” Normandin emphasized. “Yoga gives you a space to be kind to yourself.” Measured breathing, she said, is the only thing required. 

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

Rutherford said that though yoga can be an individual experience for her, classes are a great way to feel connection to a group. “There’s a collective energy that runs around the room,” she said. Normandin echoed this, describing the supportive atmosphere that comes from the group “all going through the same experience, but in different ways.” 

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

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

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

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

Tripp said she aims to show students how they can use even simple exercise to shift their focus away from stressors, connect with others and be in the moment – the need for which has only increased in the last few years. 

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

In a survey where Tripp asked students what they thought the benefit of PE is, as many respondents wrote things like “teaches me to be a better communicator,” “puts me in a better mindset,” “keeps me motivated” and “helps learn new exercises for the future” as 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 core of their training, passion and ability to thrive in their sport. 

Maureen Nix, a member of the Lakes Region Triathlon Club, underlined how group training supports her joy as well as her success. “I couldn’t do this by myself,” she said. “Anyone who wants to try [triathlon] should find a group to train with because the 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 supportive group of like-minded people who nurture each other’s wellbeing. 

“They’re our inspiration,” said Donna Harris, the youngest of the group at practice that day, of the two friends. “They keep us going.”

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