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A group of about a dozen people meet several mornings a week at Champaign’s West Side Park to do tai chi, stretching or other types of exercises. They’ve been meeting since April, after their regular fitness program ended in-person classes and moved online.

The people exercising at the park are all participants in the Lifetime Fitness Program for adults age 55 and older, run by the University of Illinois kinesiology department.

When the program ended its in-person exercise sessions in the spring due to the pandemic, this small group of participants began meeting in the park to continue to exercise together outdoors.

“We’ve formed terrific bonds. We’re a very tight group,” said Charmaine Young of Champaign, who has been exercising with the Lifetime Fitness Program for 30 years. The people who meet at the park are all in their late 70s or 80s.

Their closeness is why some of them have been able to continue exercising together in person, because they trust each other to be careful, Young said. They wear masks and social distance at the park.

The Lifetime Fitness Program classes are a mix of stretching, strengthening, balance and aerobic workouts. The program now meets over Zoom for online classes twice a week, and the group meets at the park on four other mornings.

When they started exercising in the park, the participants saw a woman who was doing tai chi. When they expressed an interest in learning it, the woman began teaching them twice a week. They often walk around the park after they finish with their group exercise.

Just as important as the exercise is the social contact the participants get from getting together.

“It keeps them from getting down and depressed. It gives us that outlet and connection with each other,” Young said.

Last week, they held a coffee tailgate at their cars after they finished exercising, and they sometimes get together to socialize in Young’s garage.

“We don’t want to go indoors anywhere,” said Young, who acknowledged they’ll have to figure out where to exercise when the weather gets bad. She said the group may gather in her garage.

“But until snow or ice comes and runs us away, we will be there. Regardless of the temperature, we are out there,” Young said.

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at prairieathlete@gmail.com or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.

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