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Super circuits students: Getting fit and making friends

Walking into Barbara Steer's Super Circuits class, it feels more like social hour than 60 minutes of heart pumping, muscle burning, weight training and aerobics. Steer knows first names, classmates are liberal with the hugs, and there is an abundance of good-natured teasing, all on the second day of class.
Participants work out in a super circuits class, including Brenda Foster and Charlotte Whitney (front row) and Lou Rice, Leon Wyszewianski and Jim Sweeton.(Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

This unique atmosphere can be attributed to a core group of about a dozen enthusiasts who return to the class each semester, creating friendships along the way.

"Motivation is the prime obstacle for most people," says Michael Steer, who is in his 16th year of attending the class. "Having social interaction combined with your workout is a strong motivator."

"I knew I wasn't motivated to go on my own. It is the social component that is the hook," agrees Patty Wren, a lecturer in the Health Behavior and Health Education Department, and three-year veteran of the class.

Barbara Steer was a reluctant exerciser herself, until her husband, Michael, convinced her to attend super circuits with him in 1991. Since then she has received her certificate from the American Council on Exercise as a group fitness instructor and personal trainer, and now she teaches the very class that motivated her to get her certificate.

Core members also monitor members of the group when they slack off. "If someone doesn't show up for awhile, people check on you," says Lisa Bartlett, a senior graphic artist at Unions-Graphics who has been attending the class since 1997. "You feel like you need to be there," Michael Steer says of the surveillance.

That social component moves beyond the confines of the classroom into the personal lives of the classmates.

Wren and Bartlett met through the class and later developed a collaborative project for their students. Wren's students work with health agencies to produce advertising and information products they need. "My Public Health students are not graphic designers. They can work with Lisa's designers to make a better product," Wren says. Last year, the effort resulted in a poster to encourage informal gatherings at Ozone House, a social service agency for teens and youth, to keep them off the street and out of trouble.

Other group activities have developed as well. Michael Steer and several classmates began training to run marathons together. "When you are running three to four hours, you need someone to talk to," he says. An inventor of games, he invites classmates to test his latest ideas. The class also provides a willing pool of subjects for studies conducted by kinesiology students.

The class, which involves a quick-tempoed workout, takes into account the wide array of age groups represented. "It is tailored largely to people over 30. There are even people in their 70s in the class," Wren says.

"I was impressed that the class seemed to consist of 'normal people,' not perfect young super athletes," says Jamie Morris, supervisor in receiving unit monograph acquisitions of the Graduate Library, and a first-time super circuits participant at a recent class.

"Being social and fit are both important," Barbara Steer says. However, she adds, "it ought to be fun."

Barbara Steer's guidance and spunk are among the reasons people keep coming back for more. "The spirit of the instructor creates a comfortable environment to lift and exercise in," Bartlett says. "It's like having a personal trainer. She is everywhere at once."

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the good-humored approach Steer takes is the abundance of theme days peppered throughout the semester. ABBA and songs from the musical "Oklahoma" occasionally blare on the speakers, as do the sounds of polka. "I had never worked out to polka. It was hysterical," Bartlett says. On Beach Day, everyone wears leis, and on Chocolate Day a different type of chocolate is found at each workout station. The class celebrates birthdays and dresses up for Halloween.

Besides being great fun, the idea of themes serves another important purpose. "It breaks down divisions when you are sweating to the oldies," Wren says.

"It's a pretty level playing field. There are full professors dealing with grounds people, and everyone has a lot to talk about. It is an unusual interaction between schools rank, and status," Bartlett says.

"They like each other and they have fun. They come for the movie reviews and restaurant critiques," Barbara Steer says of the group.

Newcomers to the class, which is open to anyone, should not feel intimidated by the closeness of core members, participants say.

"I was quite apprehensive. I had not taken any sort of exercise class in years, but the instructor, Barbara, and the whole class were quite welcoming, which put my fears to rest," Morris says.

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