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Women stay active, healthy through NMSU Cooperative Extension Service program

If you drop into the New Mexico State University Grant County Cooperative Extension Service office in Silver City on any Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning, you will likely see a group of women in fitness clothing sharing a laugh. They aren’t there just to chat – this is an investment for their long-term health and fitness.

A group of women exercise with ankle weights.
Judy O’Loughlin (center) leads a group fitness class at the Grant County Cooperative Extension office in Silver City. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
A seated woman puts on ankle weights.
Martha Stuart, a participant in the StrongWomen, Strong Bones class in Silver City, puts on ankle weights for the class. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)
A seated woman exercises with hand held weights.
A woman in the StrongWomen, Strong Bones class in Silver City performs an exercise. (NMSU photo by Emily C. Kelley)

Since the summer of 2009, Judy O’Loughlin, NMSU Grant County CES program director and home economist, has led a group varying in size from 10 to 40 women, through 60 minutes of slow, methodical, weight-bearing exercises to keep them functionally fit and active. The group follows a program called StrongWomen based on the April 2000 book by Miriam E. Nelson called “Strong Women, Strong Bones.”

Established in 2009, the New Mexico StrongWomen, Strong Bones program has evolved to include strength-training programs for both men and women.

“Exercise helps us to feel better, have more energy and even look better,” said Sonja Koukel, NMSU Extension community and environmental health specialist. “It’s important because it keeps us healthy by boosting the ‘good’ cholesterol (HDL) and helps prevent or manage a wide range of health problems or concerns.”

NMSU CES home economists from around the state gathered in 2009 for a two-day StrongWomen training session in Las Cruces that was more physically challenging than most thought it would be.

“We had an intense training back in February 2009,” O’Loughlin said. “They gave us the books at the end of November, and told us to practice all of December because the training was going to be intense.”

O’Loughlin said the training was tough, as the exercises, using dumbbells, ankle weights, chairs and other props, are performed in slow, eight-count repetitions. The challenging training was worth it because she knew that the program could benefit the women of Grant County. In fact, O’Loughlin lost two dress sizes while leading the Grant County StrongWomen program.

StrongWomen is described by the program’s website as a “national evidence-based community exercise and nutrition program targeted to midlife and older women,” developed by Miriam E. Nelson and colleagues. The Grant County StrongWomen program follows the strength-training curriculum, but there also is an aerobic activity and nutrition curriculum offered through StrongWomen.

“The class started here in July of 2009, and it’s been nothing but strong ever since,” O’Loughlin said. “I’ve probably had 340 different women in the county go through the program over that span of years.”

Many people are aware of the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle, but in the words of one of the original StrongWomen participants in Silver City, when it comes to your fitness “use it or lose it.”

Class participant Martha Stuart says she can do many more things than most friends her age.

“To be perfectly honest, I’ve done lots of exercise classes, but this is the only one I have ever really stuck with,” she said.

The general consensus among participants in the StrongWomen class there is that the social aspect of the class keeps them showing up every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

“I can see myself getting better, even as long as I’ve been doing it, I wouldn’t quit for anything. I’m afraid that I would go rapidly downhill,” Stuart said. “Coming up here, you get to chat with your friends. Some of us go out for lunch afterwards, or out for a cup of coffee. It’s a lot of socialization and a lot of fun.”

“It’s so important for us ‘oldsters’ to stay active,” said Mary Alice Murphy, another StrongWomen participant. “I think farmers and ranchers have always lived to ripe old ages because they stay active. We’re not working on a farm or ranch, but we need to stay active.”

“As we age, it’s important to include strength training into our exercise programs,” Koukel said. “Studies have shown that older women who engage in strength training benefit with increased muscle mass and strength; improved bone density and reduced risk for osteoporosis; reduced risk for diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, depression and obesity; and improved self-confidence, sleep and vitality.”

Since 2003, more than 2,500 StrongWomen leaders have been trained throughout the U.S. and Canada. To learn more about the program, visit www.strongwomen.com.

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Cooperative Extension, a state-by-state national network of educators who extend university-based knowledge to individuals, families and communities. Because these educators (agents) live and work in their communities, they are a trusted source of research-based education. The majority of programs offered through CES are free of charge or are offered at a nominal fee. Extension strives to bring the programs to the people so accessibility is always a consideration for increasing participation and engagement.

To learn more about NMSU Cooperative Extension Services health and fitness programs in your area, visit http://efcs.nmsu.edu/family-health--wellness.html.