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Let’s be honest, working out doesn’t feel like work when you’re surrounded by friends who share your fitness goals. Many of today’s fitness instructors have learned that while we are building strength, we are also building community. For example, CrossFit has built its program around offering members a friendly, supportive environment in which to achieve their fitness goals. People know one another by name and celebrate everyone’s victories and milestones. Hearing someone cheer your name as you attempt to PR a front squat can be the difference between hitting that PR and just falling short.

On the flip side, a healthy level of competitiveness among patrons is never a bad thing. Trying to keep up with others has helped many run farther, climb higher and lift more than imagined. Like many adults, team sports were a big part of life growing up, and there’s a longing to recreate that camaraderie and competition. Though lots of folks want to exercise and work out, they are not truly fulfilled going to the gym or running around the neighborhood. Maybe they need a coach, or maybe a tribe.

At 75 years old, Merle and Judy Pierson have built an amazing tribe of athletes who prove every day that fitness is not a fad, but a lifelong journey. No matter where you are in the journey there are others ready to walk (or run!) the path with you. Over the past 10 years, the Piersons have been teaching fitness classes throughout the New River Valley. Between the two of them, they teach 15 classes per week spread across the Blacksburg Recreation Center, Weight Club and Giles Wellness Center.

The Body Flow fitness class that Judy teaches at the Weight Club is a Les Mills program that blends Tai Chi, Pilates and yoga. “Memorizing the choreography is a mental as well as physical workout,” Judy laughs. The Les Mills International program is focused on the idea of being “One Tribe” of certified instructors with workouts licensed by 17,500 partners in 100 countries.

Judy and Merle cherish the relationships they build with patrons, as well as those that clients enjoy with one another. “I love the people. The greatest joy is seeing friendships develop as people push themselves to be in better physical and functional condition,” says Merle. “They are able to optimize their quality of life on all fronts,” Judy adds. Her Healthy Backs fitness class for seniors at the Blacksburg Rec Center has been recommended by doctors and physical therapists who understand the tremendous value of the program. “We started this five years ago, and now we have up to 30 regular patrons – including one who is 90 years old and many who have had major surgeries such as knee, hip and shoulder replacements.”

Merle also teaches at the Blacksburg Rec Center, and his Senior Strength Functional Fitness class incorporates balance, strength, flexibility and stamina. At the Weight Club, he teaches a Fundamental Fitness class for all ages which rotates through strength/balance, yoga/range of motion, and flexibility/core strength. At the Giles Wellness Center, he conducts the class Healthy Backs, as well as Yoga and Power Cut Strength.

Members of the Weight Club would be hard-pressed to find a reason not to take a fitness class. With more than 70 classes per week – most of them free for members — there is something for everybody. In addition to the fitness courses, Merle and Judy go to the Weight Club’s Body Pump class three times a week, and Judy does Zumba and Body Flow. “It’s pure pleasure,” she says. “It energizes me to do what I do.”
The Piersons have no shortage of energy. They live outside Newport in Giles County where they run a dairy goat farm and raise horses and have just added two border collies to the animal family. They stay busy scuba diving all over the world. As certified dive masters, they have been to the Great Barrier Reef, the Red Sea, the Caribbean and even on an underwater archaeology expedition in Israel. “It was so exciting. We unearthed 1st century pottery and Israeli gold coins.”

The New River is also a favorite scuba spot, and they love to go with their geologist friends who teach them about rock formations and tectonic fault lines. As underwater cave divers, the Piersons have been to the Cenotes in Mexico. “We’ve done cave mapping and been part of some pretty dangerous operations,” Merle relates. “We used to sit home and worry about the kids, and now they sit at home and worry about us!” Judy chuckles.

Married for 55 years, Merle and Judy prove that fitness is anything but boring. They are shining examples of the benefits of having a partner by your side for the fitness journey.

Whether you find your “tribe” at CrossFit, or in a fitness class, or even on an underwater scuba adventure, know that while you’re busy building lifelong fitness, you are building lifelong friendships, too.

Text and Photos by Emily Kathleen Alberts

Emily Kathleen Alberts is a Blacksburg-based freelance writer and regular contributor to New River Valley Magazine. She considers herself a fitness member in the local CrossFit tribe.

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