Skip Underwood, left, during a virtual workout with Emily Crowder.
When news came down that Colorado State, like scores of other universities around the country, would be conducting classes remotely this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Emily Crowder and Skip Underwood were among the many who were disappointed.
The CSU senior majoring in health and exercise science and the 75-year-old retired U.S. Army vet figured their joint workout sessions were over. After all, they wouldn’t be able to meet in the Glenn Morris Field House for their early morning exercise routines as part of the Adult Fitness Program.
By all accounts, the program is mutually beneficial: Students studying health promotion get a taste of what it’s like to work with a client, much like a personal trainer would, while older adults in the community receive support and guidance with maintaining a regular exercise routine. And it often goes beyond proper technique for a push-up — many pairs’ social interactions develop into relationships that can last beyond graduation.
“It’s an important part of my life right now,” Underwood says. “I feel so much more alive after a workout session. I’ve made good friends there, and working with the students is a blast. I was worried I’d lose that, and I was pretty bummed about it because it adds such a richness to my life.”
So, when Adult Fitness Director Kimberly Burke instructed her student trainers to maintain interaction with their assigned members during this period of social distancing, Crowder and Underwood decided that while the virus might keep them apart physically, they could still continue their workouts virtually. They’ve turned to Zoom to continue their twice-weekly routines 54 miles apart: Underwood from his Fort Collins home and Crowder from her dad’s house in Brighton.
Hitting it off
Crowder won’t soon forget how she and Underwood met. At the beginning of the semester in January, Burke was encouraging her new cohort of student trainers to strike up conversations with Adult Fitness members working out on machines or jogging around the indoor track. Crowder hadn’t been paired up yet, and was participating in a light 30-minute workout with other students and members when Underwood began chatting with her.
“He’d kind of banter with me, and I’d banter back,” Crowder recalls. “We were just giving each other trouble, and we knew we’d get along. Even other members came up afterwards and said, ‘You two belong together.’”
Underwood, who spent 26 years in the Army, figured he had a pretty good exercise routine developed during his six years in Adult Fitness, with at least four previous student trainers. But Crowder started giving him pointers on his technique and new wrinkles for his exercises. After all, unlike most undergraduates in the class, she came in as a certified personal trainer, having taken the requisite coursework at the Student Recreation Center.
“She was always asking, ‘Is your core tight, Skip?’” he says. “And I’d reply, ‘Yes ma’am.’”
“Skip is so nice,” Crowder adds. “He likes to tell me that he’s doing this to help me get an ‘A’ in the class. And then I reply, ‘No, this is for you.’”
About the program
Burke says there are about 175 members in the Adult Fitness program, supported this semester by 49 students. The full student cohort meets as a group for discussion and a lecture once a week, and they are divided among four lab sessions to work with their assigned members during morning, noon and evening sessions. The variety of student-led classes, preceded by a warm-up period, includes workouts focusing on aerobics, stretch and balance, the exercise ball, legs, arms and a circuit approach with high-intensity interval training. There are also water aerobics, yoga and Zumba classes.
It’s the first of two practicums that students in the Department of Health and Exercise Science’s health promotion concentration are required to take before a final semester-long internship.
“Hopefully, the students are providing something valuable to the members, and the members are definitely providing something to the students,” Burke says, adding that the experience goes beyond physical fitness. “We always highlight how social the experience is with Adult Fitness. A lot of students realize how much they have in common with their partners. The members could be giving them the same advice that I or their parents have given them, but coming from the members, it’s different.”
Burke says that while Crowder and Underwood are among the first to continue live workouts virtually, her students are taking a variety of approaches to staying in touch with their members, depending on factors like internet connections and IT prowess. Some are communicating via phone, email or FaceTime, while all students are expected to create video versions of the classes they’d be leading in person, posted to YouTube so that members can watch them at their convenience.
“There are a lot of beautiful connections made here,” Burke says, “and some of these students and members stay in touch after the semester is over, meeting up for coffee.”
Underwood and Crowder may well end up being counted among those.
“Part of the joy for me is getting to know the students and their backgrounds,” Underwood says. “The students need to practice on us as clients, but I think it’s also about building a relationship, respecting each other, being interested in each other and offering more than just, ‘Here’s how to do a bench press better.’ You have a chance to interact with people who remind you of your children and grandchildren.”
“It’s awesome that Skip wants to keep doing it; he’s a go-getter,” says Crowder, who wants to open her own gym someday. “It’s good to have a partner to be accountable to. Now, more than ever, it’s important to have a schedule. It’s too easy to say, ‘I’m at home now, I’m going to be lazy.’ We all know exercise reduces stress, and it’s a stressful time. It becomes less of a chore if you make it part of your regular routine.”
“This is one of many examples of people getting creative during this time,” Underwood adds. “To have a student who’s motivated to work with me and keep me on task gives me a lot of encouragement. I feel fortunate that I can figure out the technology part, and I’m working out much harder than when I was doing it on my own in front of the TV.”
One of the only drawbacks of working out on Zoom, they say, is that there’s sometimes a slight lag when Crowder is counting his repetitions.
“Sometimes he does more reps, but that’s OK — that’s the consensus we came to,” Crowder says with a laugh. “I think that’s why we clicked, because I’m passionate about it, and so is he. I’m just happy I can keep working with Skip, he’s awesome. I hope I’m as active as he is when I’m that age.”