Do you ever get frustrated because of poor attendance in your group exercise classes? Stop and think for a moment about what it would be like from a completely different point of view. What if you were a participant who didn’t have the option of going to a group fitness class? Not because you didn’t have a car or the motivation, but because you lived in a rural area and there simply weren’t any fitness facilities to attend. And even if there were, you couldn’t afford a membership. How inspired would you feel to exercise if you had no fitness background and no clue how to begin?

A study published in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion examined the link between obesity and environmental factors within rural communities. Other research had already found that obesity and a more sedentary lifestyle are more common in rural communities than in metropolitan and suburban areas. This new study confirmed that, among other things, “further distance to the closest recreational facility increased the likelihood of being obese.”

Knowing this, if you were a fitness professional living in or near a rural area, you might take it upon yourself to help your community solve the proximity problem. That’s exactly what IDEA member Robin Kokjohn did in one of the poorest counties in Iowa, where not even a stoplight gives cues.

Breaking Even

Kokjohn is an avid runner who started teaching group fitness in the early ’80s by default. The woman who taught the existing class quit, and Kokjohn was encouraged to give instructing a go by a friend of hers who taught 25 miles away. The mentor was safety-minded (this was during the high-impact, no-shoes days), gave Kokjohn basic cuing and choreography, and cut her loose. “With help from a couple of physical therapists and guidance about getting my information only from reliable sources, I developed a class that appeals to the beginner and the more advanced participant,” Kokjohn says. “I am the only instructor, and I also teach a free seniors’ class in a nearby town, which is popular. I try to keep the regular class ‘doable’ for many levels and the format fresh and interesting. I incorporate as much variety as I can on a budget. The fact that my gals are a very talented and game group is most important.”

Kokjohn’s class (about 16 consistent members) meets twice a week about 8 months out of the year. They convene in the non-air-conditioned community center, which the mayor offers them at a subsidized rate. Attendees spend the summer months exercising outdoors on their own. Kokjohn charges only $2 per class, and even this fee is on the honor system. “I put a jar out, and people put their money in. There may be times when they don’t have any money, so this works out fine. The money goes to pay the rent. Basically I try to break even each year.”

Support Through Stages

Kokjohn says she wouldn’t be teaching if there wasn’t a need in the community. “I have always been welcomed with good attendance,” she says. “We are all very proud of our program, and I have about 10 very fit women who have been coming to class since its origin 22 years ago. Our ages range from 22 to 65. There is never a stranger in the class. Everyone knows everyone, and we have gone through stages from childbirth to menopause and supported each other through divorces and deaths. We are referred to in town as the ‘aerobics gals.’”

While many instructors may take for granted a gleaming, glamorous fitness studio with a high-tech sound system, Kokjohn feels lucky to have the very basics. “The biggest challenge is financial,” she says. “It is a strain to try to add something new in the line of equipment and even music. Right now we are still using a portable sound system I bought in 1993.”

Kokjohn’s classes are much more than just fitness-oriented gatherings. They bring the small community together to socialize and to bond. Participants learn to support each other in making healthy lifestyle changes—and as long as there is a place to hold class, they will continue to step, slide, stretch and strengthen. The social aspect may be one thing that sets this rural class apart from more anonymous facility offerings in larger areas. “I always refer to ‘we’ when talking about the class, because it is not really mine,” Kokjohn says. “I may be up front, but everyone else keeps me there.”

Inspire the
World to Fitness®

IDEA’s campaign unites our members with those of other organizations in a joint effort to reach out to nonexercisers. Our commitment is to provide you with information and sources so you can act locally.

tell us what
you are doing

Are your clients obese, disabled or just starting to exercise after years of sedentary living? We want to hear how you are motivating, challenging and retaining clients on a long-term basis. In 200 words or less, detail the specifics of your program and your client(s), and provide your name and contact information. If your success story is compelling and unique, we may use it in a future issue or on the Inspire the World to Fitness® section of the website.

E-mail: [email protected]

Mail: Sandy Todd Webster

10455 Pacific Center Court

San Diego, CA 92121-4339

Fax: (858) 535-8234

Joy Keller

Joy Keller is executive editor of IDEA Fitness Journal and IDEA Fit Business Success, and is also a certified personal trainer, indoor cycling instructor, yoga teacher (RYT 200) and Reiki Master.

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