It is 5:30 AM and thirty sweating bodies are in a hot gym competing on teams for Boot Camp. Tanya, the instructor, calls out “bear crawl” and the lead person in each line goes down on all fours and lurches down the gym floor to the end, slapping hands with his or her teammate, who sprints back. The next person is called on to take giant steps into a deep knee bend on one leg and then alternate to the other, down the length of the floor.. Before long everyone has hands on hips, fighting for breath. Even so, there is a palpable sense of pride as teams vie with each other. Tanya puts us through a series of rapid, heart pumping exercises and before long my muscles are screaming for relief. This 50 minute class seems like it will never end, but it is finally over and somehow I find my way to the door. Many, if not most of those in the class will return home to resume their busy lives: getting ready for work and the kids off to school.

Are these just a few diehards or is this rural community finding itself in the middle of a lifestyle change toward good health? It seems to me that there is change in the wind, and it’s a good thing. Rural living is great in many ways, but it often hasn’t translated into good physical health – at least until recently. But people are waking up to the possibilities and benefits of exercising rurally.

When we moved to my wife’s family farm near Funk, Nebraska, I didn’t know if I was ready for the change. We had previously lived in Lincoln and I grew up in Omaha. The dense urban network of houses, business districts, and the din of traffic was replaced by … birds, trees, and endless rows of corn. Our nearest neighbor was a half mile down the gravel road. If you forgot something at the grocery store 10 miles away, it was time to look in the cupboard and get creative. The night skies were amazing, but, as a fairly committed runner, I found that conditions were not always ideal for exercising. Unlike the big city, there were few work-out facilities and running on pitch-black gravel roads before sunrise could be kind of scary when I couldn’t even see my feet. Would a rural area, with minimal evidence of a running or cycling “community”, really be conducive to maintaining a healthy lifestyle?

Before long I came to realize the answer was a resounding “yes”. Living in the country allowed me to enjoy running and bike riding in relative safety on rural roads and in small towns, where traffic was light and complete strangers would wave and give a wide berth as they drove by. I came to appreciate the challenge of mountain biking over the well maintained gravel roads and enjoy the wide open vistas. This past winter we didn’t get much snow, so I was excited one day to look out and see some fresh snow because that meant it was time for cross country skiing – right outside our front door! I brought up the ancient skis from the basement, applied some wax, and before long was slipping along on our neighbor’s farmland. It was breathtaking and exhilarating.

Take that big city!

While there were many positives to exercising rurally, it seemed for many years, at least in south central Nebraska, that not too many people had gotten the message about the benefits of regular exercise. But thankfully that is changing. Everywhere you look, there are people exercising for fun, relaxation and good health: parents out pushing strollers, kid's taking part in events like the pajama-run, and seniors rocking exercise classes at the local YMCA.

Multi-use fitness centers make a huge difference in a community.. For many years the only fitness center in Holdrege was an old building with not much more than a racquetball court and a small gymnasium with a few pieces of equipment. It was a start, but this town of 6,000 needed more, much more. A donation of land and an ambitious fund raising drive resulted in a beautiful and spacious YMCA that, ten years later, boasts over 3600 members. Lexington, NE just completed their YMCA and already has about 3200 members. Together the two Y's were visited over 222,000 times in 2015. Many of the visitors took part in the classes offered – almost 25,000 participants in 2015. Is this part of a trend? I like to think so.

I plan to do some additional postings on the exercise phenomenon in rural Nebraska. Before I let you go, here are a few points to make for the beginner. Most of this is borrowed shamelessly from articles I have read over the years:

1. If it feels good, do it: There is no tried and true formula for the best way to exercise. May it be walking, running, weight lifting, swimming, group classes, cycling, jump roping, mountain climbing (might be tough to train for on the plains), or martial arts, any activity that causes you to grunt, sweat and work to catch your breath is ok.
2. Variety is the spice of life: If your thing is to do the same thing over and over, that’s fine, but for many of us, exercising gets boring if it’s always the same. Even if you run like a gazelle, it’s good for your body and your mind to cross train with weights or throw in some intervals, do some kick boxing, whatever suits your fancy.
3. You won’t melt, or blow away: If you exercise outdoors in Nebraska, there are about 300 excuses for not going outdoors, because that’s how many days are too hot, too cold or too windy each year. If you don’t belong to a fitness club, you just have to wear the layers or the sun screen and cope as best you can. You might even feel a sense of perverse pride that you were out in that snowstorm when other “sensible” people were watching you out their picture window.
4. Don’t overdue it, but sore muscles are a badge of honor: When I see people strolling along at shopping mall speed, texting on their cell phone, it makes me wonder if they might be better off at the mall than out exercising. Don’t be afraid to push yourself a bit.

That’s all I have for now. Good luck on your road to good health.

Mike VaughnWilliams

Mike VaughnWilliams spent his career in special education and has a passion for fitness, health, sports (especially golf), and for running marathons. He and his wife Susan live on a farm between Holdrege and Funk.

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