LA CROSSE, Wis. — For Marilyn Nieckarz, daily classes at the YMCA were a staple in maintaining both her fitness level and her friendships.
So when the facility shut down this spring due to COVID-19, she and her senior cohorts had to find ways to get creative with their beloved morning routine.
Now, three days a week, the limber ladies take chair fitness classes virtually, Nieckarz, 82, participating via iPad in the comfort of her kitchen.
And while the online instruction takes care of the exercise component, the group members missed the socialization, having traditionally gathered for coffee before or after class and sitting side by side during the sessions.
Careful of the spread of the coronavirus, the women, ranging in age from 60 to 90, began meeting every other Thursday at either Riverside or Pettibone Park, each bringing a folding chair and a mask, sitting in a spread-apart circle that allows for face-to-face conversation while following health department guidelines.
About five to 10 women usually show up for conversation and a break from being cooped up, relishing the chance to change the scenery and the monotony that comes with quarantine.
"So many seniors are home alone all day long, and it's nice to see each other -- actually see each other," Nieckarz told the La Crosse Tribune.
Word of mouth has upped the attendance of the biweekly meetups, with members of the water aerobics class which normally preceded their chair yoga/aerobics sessions showing up during the July 2 meetup.
"It's a positive thing psychologically for us, I think. It gives us the chance to talk to someone other than our TV, or public radio," Nieckarz notes. "Or my dog. I talk to my dog all the time."
With two weeks of topics on their minds, the conversation flows easily when they get together, with talk about COVID-19, life updates and the details on those they haven't seen since in-person YMCA classes closed down.
"We pass the gossip around," Nieckarz quips. Rather than nosiness, the scoop is shared out of care for one another, with group members in the high-risk age category for severe COVID-19 symptoms.
"We keep in touch so we know what is happening with everyone," Nieckarz says. Luckily, all have remained illness-free to her knowledge.
The women are strong proponents of health and safety during the pandemic, keeping a distance from each, wearing their face coverings, and praising businesses that enforce the same.
Their conscientiousness hasn't gone unnoticed, with law enforcement even taking note.
When a police officer approached the ladies during a recent meetup, however, they anticipated the worst.
"I thought, 'Oh, we're in deep (expletive) trouble!' " Nieckarz said with a laugh.
But rather than an admonishment or inquiry, the officer had just stopped to express his appreciation for their social distancing and masking efforts.
"We were so pleased we had done the right thing," Nieckarz says.
As the coronavirus continues to leave "normal" life in limbo, Nieckarz is keeping up with her 50-year streak of fitness classes by screen for the time being, and savoring time with fresh air and friends.
Says Nieckarz, "We're all just trying to be patient."