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High Marks for Kicks

June 30, 2005 By:
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Wilma Kancher (left) and Rita Rosen at a JCC exercise class Photo by Michele Frentrop

This isn't your run-of-the-mill fitness class. It's 9 a.m. on a Friday, and nearly two-dozen men and women are standing and sitting - and hopping and jumping - on colorful mats on the floor of the two-story gymnasium at the JCC Klein Branch in Northeast Philadelphia. Donned in sweatsuits or T-shirts and shorts - and, of course, the requisite pair of sneakers - the group is stretching, pulling, doing push-ups and sit-ups, and counting aloud as they go.

Standing in the front of the gymnasium guiding the exercisers - himself wearing shorts and a collared shirt, albeit with "Staff" emblazoned on the back - is the spry and spirited Frank Katz, all of 91.

For the past 25 years, Katz has been leading groups of 15 to 25 students, whose average age he estimates to be about 73 (others say it could be years older).

"Okay, everybody, looking good," shouts Katz to the exercisers as they attempt 50 push-ups, most with their knees on the ground, but still lifting and lowering their upper torsos. With the students "sitting" against the wall - with nothing beneath them to lean on but their bent legs - Katz continues to instruct: "Don't come up until I tell you."

'It Gives Me Energy'

Katz started all this as a student in the "Fitness Over 50" class back in 1978, but when the teacher had to take a leave of absence just two years later, the retired engineer took over leading the thrice-weekly classes. Using the exercises he'd already learned, as well as books and tapes he scrutinized for additional stretches, he wound up honing a routine that pretty much targets every part of the body.

"A-E-I-O-U," the class yells in unison, reciting the English vowels in an effort to give their lips, tongues and vocals a workout as well.

The makeup of the class - free for members of the JCC - varies in experience and expertise: There's the two octogenarians who work out five times a week in the gym downstairs, and those who only move when this session rolls around; there's Wilma Kancher and Rita Rosen, the two "high-kickers," who can nearly lift their feet to touch their outstretched arms, and then those who can only barely lift their legs off the ground; and there's the handful in between who just enjoy moving, exercising and socializing with the group they've grown to know over the years.

"The class makes me feel good," says Frances Neiman, 80, who met her best friend, Bea Univer, there nearly a decade ago. "It gives me energy, and my cholesterol and bone density have improved."

Less the three-week "time off" that Katz took after a mild stroke in 1998, and some classes missed here and there for the common cold or short vacations, the instructor rarely skips a consecutive session. If he does - like when he flew to South Africa this past January for his grandson's wedding - he has an assistant that takes over and leads the class. The students are also able to pitch in and teach the exercises that they've come to memorize over the years.

Katz says, though, that despite the class being essentially self-run - any student can step up to the front on any given day and lead the calisthenics - the students like it best when he runs the class because he pushes them to do every exercise.

In fact, it's a reputation for being thorough that has earned him the nickname "sergeant."

And, as the 81-year-old Univer attests: "The class is a complete workout.

"Not everyone does everything, but Frank's an inspiration. People see him and think, 'If he can get down [on the mat], then I can, too.' "

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