A Strong(er) Woman
When the Christmas lights go back in boxes and trees settle in their final resting place, the people who celebrated the holiday’s joy find themselves looking to the future. The hours counting down to a new year fill hearts with hope and exuberance, expecting something better than before and planning for a change.
Filling the air is talk of New Year’s resolutions—diets, exercise, new beginnings and a new appreciation for life. It never fails to be said: “This year will be different.”
But flash forward one month, and the diet is no longer followed, the gym subscription has gone to waste, and life becomes an impatient race to prosperity once again. Though the resolutions fade as quickly as the seconds counting down to the new year, the desire that created them is still waiting to be aroused by a distant glimmer of hope or a call to action.
Penny Bravo’s first call came in 2001 when she was diagnosed with osteoporosis.
Osteoporosis refers to a “porous bone” created by a deteriorating skeletal system and declining bone mass. The condition typically affects small-statured women who experience a low intake of calcium, perform low levels of activity, and are post-menopausal. The loss of bone mass can contribute to a lack of balance, which in turn makes the individual more prone to falls that result in fractures and other harmful instances—a potentially vicious cycle.
KEEPING UP WITH IT ALL
Penny was diagnosed around the age of 53. As someone with no previous family history of osteoporosis, the diagnosis came as a surprise.
“I’d heard about it, but I didn’t realize the seriousness of it until it hit me and I realized my age,” Penny says. “I didn’t want to fall and break a hip.”
The 64-year-old mother of four has 12 grandchildren, all under age 12. The family is spread across four states with children in Missouri, Arkansas, Florida and Maryland. With so many grandchildren, and all of the traveling she does with her husband of 45 years, Penny knew she needed to make a change in her life in order to be in her best condition to keep up with it all.
STRUGGLING TO MAKE IT STICK
And thus began her realization of a needed change—a moment many have experienced or will someday come face to face with. The slow steps began with her doctor recommending a book—Strong Women Stay Young by Dr. Miriam Nelson of Tufts University in Massachusetts.
The book was first published in 1997 and consisted of countless weight-bearing exercises recorded with people like Penny in mind. The book and its exercises were based on research that showed that weight-bearing and strength-training exercises helped to increase bone density and bone mass. In her study, participants that practiced the exercises twice a week over a period of one year were seen to have dramatically reduced their bone loss, with some even reversing the effects.
“At that time, my doctor had told me about Strong Women Stay Young, and said that I should start the weightlifting program recorded in the book because it was proven that weights help with the bone density and decrease loss,” Penny says. “I also had to go on medication and add more calcium to my diet. So I got the book and the equipment and did it for maybe four weeks, and then they got shelved.”
Much like many striving to make a lifestyle change, it’s hard to make it stick. Penny found it difficult to stay motivated by herself and found herself putting it off another day—until she had put it off for months.
“I wasn’t able to do it on my own, and I needed to make the commitment,” Penny says. “I’d slack off and then I’d go in for my bone density exam and it would be bad so I’d pick up the weights again and then slack off and I could never stick with it on my own. I was going about every year for an exam and not getting much better. You just get busy in life. I couldn’t stay focused to do it on my own.”
ONE FATEFUL DAY …
Luckily, Penny wasn’t the only one with an interest in the Strong Women weightlifting program. One fateful day, five years ago, she saw an ad in the newspaper placed by Debbie Melvin advertising the start of a new program based on the Strong Women Stay Young publication. Penny says she knew right away that she needed—and wanted—to sign up.
The group came together through coincidental circumstances when Debbie was scheduled to speak on a Thibodaux radio show at the same time as the park director that ultimately helped her to solidify a class location and time. As the two were discussing details and the potential need for an instructor, Monica Stock was listening and called in with interest.
Five years later, what started out as an idea became a class taught by Monica three times a week to about 25 ladies at Peltier Park in Thibodaux. The initial charter members (about 13) still attend the classes. One of those members is Penny, and she says she never would have expected to receive such a wide range of benefits from the class.
“Prior to joining Strong Women, I was more or less improving slightly because of the medication; but in the last five years that I’ve incorporated this exercise, my condition has definitely improved,” Penny says.
The group meets regularly for weightlifting exercises, consisting of both hand and ankle weights. Though the same exercises are done each class, Penny says that Monica manages to make it interesting by changing things around once in a while.
The class has grown in size and time. What started as a one-hour weightlifting session now has more participants and content, as Monica added an extra floor exercise class following the weight-bearing exercises. Though the ladies can leave once the first hour is over, Penny stays for both sessions.
Penny says the physical benefits have been incomprehensible. Aside from better bone density, her biggest improvement has been in her back. In 1983, she had surgery for a ruptured disc that left her with pain and discomfort.
“I never played sports and really didn’t do a lot of gardening because of back issues and surgeries,” Penny says. “The program has helped to strengthen my back. I could never sleep on my back and now I can. It was the first thing I noticed, almost immediately. Because of my back, I would be like an old lady getting out of bed, and it would take a lot of effort to get clothes on—and now that is gone. It is foremost the biggest change I’ve noticed. I can get up and stand on one foot to put a sock on.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
It is often said that the little things make the difference, and Penny is no exception. She has noticed differences in her everyday activities, and that has made a great impact in her quality of life.
“This [Strong Women] program has definitely helped me to increase my activity and my endurance with things—even the strength in little things that you aren’t even aware of, whether it’s carrying in your bags of groceries or lifting up my carry-on when traveling with my daughter,” Penny says. “It’s the little, small things that you notice, like reaching up for something in the cabinet. It’s like, wow, I couldn’t do that so well before!”
The increase in strength and flexibility has allowed Penny to do things she had not been able to do before. The improvements not only impact Penny, but also her husband and family.
“On vacation, we were going to hike up and back down from the highest mountain in the area where we were coming down for two hours, and I was quite comfortable with it,” Penny says. “It was full of rocks and dirt and unstable ground. I wasn’t apprehensive, and one time I caught myself from falling. I said to my husband, ‘See, if I had not been doing Strong Women, you would’ve picked me up down there.’ But I was still standing.”
YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME
The physical benefits were to be expected, and she appreciates them every day. But the biggest benefit Penny receives from the class is something she’d never thought about—the camaraderie of friends.
“It’s a great bunch of women,” Penny says. “You’ve got some from Raceland and Labadieville that come, so it brings ladies from all different directions. And that’s another benefit from the whole program—we’ve become like a sisterhood. We share, we laugh, and there’s a bonding that goes on.”
The bond doesn’t stop with the group’s core members. New members are quickly accepted and included in the friendship.
“We readily accept new members so they’re quickly enveloped into our fold and become a part of our group,” Penny says. “We have two functions where we get together outside the class as well. I think that bonding between us adds to not only the physical development, but also the mental, spiritual and emotional well-being because we do have this friendship that goes on amongst us.”
STICKING WITH IT
The Strong Women ladies range in age from their 50s to lower 80s, each sharing a common goal of good health and physical prosperity. They work together and encourage each other along the way with laughs, prayers and uplifting thoughts. The program has contributed to a significant, noticeable difference in the participants’ lives—a difference that can be proven by their commitment to return each time.
“My goal is to stay healthy,” Penny says. “We all want to age and stay physically able and mentally alert—that’s part of having good health. That’s what I strive to do, and I do it through the Strong Women program because the benefits aren’t only physical, but also the benefits you derive from being part of this group, which says a lot. If the doctor said I was fine and didn’t have to go anymore, I would still stay with it, most definitely.”
Like many, Penny knew she needed a life change. But, like few, it actually stuck with her. Though it took her years to get there, she had several pushes along the way—a diagnosis, a book, an ad in the paper, a phone call and, perhaps most importantly, encouraging women. Who’s to say if one push had been missing where she would be today?
Many times people are pushed in the right direction, but refuse to budge. Sometimes a call to action can come from within oneself, in the discipline to stand up and know when to enlist help. For Penny, the women of the Strong Women program push her to be a better person physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally—and that has made all the difference.
Have it in you to be among the Strong Women in our community? Call the Thibodaux Recreation Department at 985.446.7235 for more information about getting involved in the local Strong Women program.