While pushing against a lying leg press in the weight room, Frances Novack has exercised enough over the past four years to lift more than 200 pounds.
Oh, and she’s only 70 years old.
The former professor of French language, literature and culture at Ursinus College, where she taught for 35 years, became interested in daily exercise when she retired more than four years ago.
She modestly wouldn’t describe herself as athletic, she laughed through her strong Brooklyn accent.
“All kidding aside, it’s very clear that going [to the gym] regularly since I retired, which I couldn’t do before I retired,” she noted, “I can tell that I’m fitter. I can push things with more resistance and push harder. And I can tell — slowly, but I can tell — that I’m better, and also I feel well, which is the major reason I go.”
When Zumba dance classes became all the rage at a local gym while she was still teaching at Ursinus, she jumped at the chance.
“It was so much fun that I signed up at the JCC,” she said, for Sunday and Tuesday mornings.
The Havertown resident now mainly attends fitness classes at Kaiserman JCC.
She still does the cardio-centric dance classes as her sole workout regimen, whether it be aerobics-style, Zumba or even hip-hop.
“It’s fun to watch [hip-hop] because [the instructor] has very intelligently done different things on Sunday and Tuesday,” she noted, considering the Sunday class often has more young people “leaping around.”
“The people my age mostly don’t go leaping around,” she joked. “It wasn’t something that I knew anything about, and I have to say that I like the music of Zumba much better than I like the music of hip-hop, but it’s great fun.”
The class is a bit more low-tempo on Tuesdays, but Novack said it’s easy enough to follow.
During the week, she said, most class attendees are her age — though some have reached 100 — and are usually all women, too. A pleasant staff and positive group, they dance at their own individual skill levels — “you don’t get graded on this,” Novack reiterated of what an instructor told her.
“People do what they can do, and whatever you’re doing, you’re doing something.” Hip-hop instructor once dropped to the floor and popped back up in a class, she recalled, to which women in the class burst out laughing, exclaiming, “If we did that, would somebody help us up?”
They keep up with each other’s personal lives, too, meeting for lunches or catching up around town.
When the classes aren’t available, she settles for the weight room.
She volunteers her time as a docent as the National Museum of American Jewish History on Wednesday mornings, pushing off meeting with her personal trainer until later that afternoon.
They meet for just half an hour, doing some resistance training on machines or step ups, like the lying leg press, which she demonstrated by sitting back in her chair and lifting her legs with ease, pushing up into the air.
“Do I do it perfectly? I don’t think so. But I can tell the difference that I can do more weight now” after four years of practice.
But her preferred classes “contribute both to making me feel good physically and mentally,” she said of the social element. “You see all these articles saying you should be exercising, so you might as well do something you like.”
Growing up in New York, she walked everywhere, since driving was relatively not an option in her generation.
Exercising at the gym has added a couple healthy elements into her lifestyle. “First of all, it means that unlike some of my friends, I have to get up and move every single day. So I do.”
While some older adults center their exercise on taking brisk walks around the neighborhood, Novack said she walks for the sake of transportation.
Although she drives, she tries to walk or take public transportation as much as possible.
“Some of my friends already say, ‘It’s a flight of stairs, let’s take the elevator,’” she said, but she has no problem tackling a few flights on her own.
For her younger relatives or friends, Novack has noticed how busy their lives are. Fitness isn’t a high priority on their lists, or they simply don’t have the time.
She keeps kosher, so she tries to maintain a healthy diet when she can — not too far from the Mediterranean diet — and rarely eats meat aside from chicken. But she’s not afraid to take a few excursions to the dark side (i.e. chocolate).
“Because my mother pushed vegetables [growing up] without our knowing that she was pushing vegetables, I used to get a carrot, lettuce and tomato every single night at dinner. I thought the great American meal was that everybody had a carrot,” she laughed. “It turned out to be because my father did not like cooked carrots but he liked the raw carrot.”
There’s been clear progress, she said, especially with balance. Her personal trainer advised a few years ago to try to stand up from a seated position without using your hands or holding onto anything — it’s more difficult than it sounds.
She looked around her synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, and noticed other people were holding onto the chair in front of them to stand up.
“Specifically at synagogue where there’s always a pew in front of you, everybody holds on. I began to do [the exercise]. It’s a small thing, but it improves your general abilities.”
She offered the advice her friends, who didn’t even realize they were holding on to something to stand.
“It wasn’t that you couldn’t, it’s that you didn’t,” she said. “That kind of thing has been very helpful.”
Novack suggests easing into a new exercise routine — and make sure it’s something you like to do — and see where that takes you.
“Starting by doing something you like and then working up,” she added, plus in the group class setting, “it helps to have the other people and because of the music.
“It just makes it a more pleasant experience.”
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