This Month’s Featured Article

Power Play

By Published On: January 30th, 2019

By Mary B. O’Neill, PhD |

Aging takes a toll on our bodies, and it’s not always fun either. Nancy Vaughan knows that and she’s making it her personal mission to address both. Through her strength training and water aerobics classes targeted primarily for women 60 and older, Nancy is telling age and gravity to take a hike – or pick up a kettlebell.

For most of her working day, Nancy is the wellness program administrator, student strength coach, and associate director of student activities at The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT. There, she works with students, faculty, and staff on fitness, diet, healthy living, and fun. Crammed into those full days are the extra hours she devotes to keeping this area’s female elders fighting fit.

For over 13 years, Nancy has been running water aerobics classes on a volunteer basis in partnership with Salisbury Recreation Commission and Hotchkiss. For the past five, she has developed two land-based classes with differing intensity levels hosted in the Hotchkiss wrestling room.

Using her nursing background plus her exhaustive and exhausting list of additional certifications as a personal trainer, weightlifting performance coach, functional strength coach, and movement and mobility specialist she is an effective blend of compassion and drill sergeant discipline. She pushes her mature students hard, but always within what their bodies can tolerate.

Nancy is grateful to Hotchkiss for the chance to make a difference both within its community and the community at large. From this writer’s perspective, Nancy’s classes are arguably one of the most profound ways that Hotchkiss improves the lives of local residents as part of its good neighbor policy.

Power up

Nancy observes, “My work with the women in my class centers on increasing power – making their bodies move more explosively, quickly, and with conviction. Our ability to generate power is lost at a greater pace as we age, more than our strength and aerobic capacity. I’m also trying to get that neurological conversation between head and feet to happen again. Somewhere along the path of aging, those two parts of our body stop talking.” For some women, remembering how to jump is such an act of concentration that Nancy starts them out with literally jumping over the seam in the wrestling mat.

Regardless of their individual starting points, Nancy treats her mature students as if they were her teenage student-athletes. “I’m using the same mechanics but modified for the age group. I don’t treat these women like old people. To me, they’re athletes.”

For new class member Joanne Hayhurst, “Nancy brings dignity to women of a certain age.” This sentiment is echoed by every student. They’re not talked down to, coddled, or treated as less capable due to their age, which ranges from early 60s to mid 80s.

Julie Himmel, a five-year veteran of Nancy’s strength training class, calls her “a great motivator and respectful of limitations” of which Julie has quite a few – a steel rod in her spine and two knee replacements. Between reps of banded weighted glute bridges on the exercise ball cuddling a medicine ball for extra resistance, Julie comments, “I don’t think I’d be moving without this class. It literally keeps me on my feet.”

Modify, modify, and modify some more

Nancy works with all the restrictions that class members bring with them. “There are body changes and limitations that aging brings that I can’t change. But I can modify every exercise, explain the body mechanics behind the movements, and come as close to perfect form as possible.”

Nancy meticulously explains how the deadlifts they do in the class use the same body mechanics and require the same attention to form as lifting a bag of birdseed or a bedbound husband.

Class members, some in their 80s, can deadlift 65 to 75 pounds easy. Nancy’s awe is evident, “I’m constantly amazed at what they can do. They could take on RBG any day of the week.” Her one rule with weights: No one- or two-pound “weenie weights.”

Connecting the work in the class with the work of life helps keep these women more independent in their daily routines. “With exercise and proper form I can help slow down the aging process and buy these women some time and independence and take control of their own aging process.”

Saved by the bell

Nancy’s main approach to building strength is timed circuit training. Around the room, women are working at exercise stations. When the bell rings, off they go panting to the next exercise. Jump squats lead to rockets, then to TRX rowing and face pulls, followed by the rowing machine, Schwinn Airdyne, planks, kettlebell swings, jump ropes and rope battles, elastic bands, and squat leg lifts. This is a hardcore core-building, heart-pumping fitness regime and one that Alison Hale sums up by saying, “When you’re 80, you don’t expect to be doing this!”

Janice Fitch, a retired physical education teacher with old volleyball war wounds, appreciates the diversity of Nancy’s fitness offerings. “We use the boxing gloves and weight bag and run sleds when the wrestling mats are up.” Running sleds? Yup, the same ones the football players are pushing in practice. Janice reels off a list of new activities Nancy has introduced the group to, including paddleboarding and pickleball.

Girls just want to have fun

For Nancy, all work and no play makes for a very dull workout. That’s why she injects fun and spontaneity into the classes. Nancy’s infectious and irreverent sense of humor keep the class lively and sets a playful tone.

She ends each class with laughter. “The last ten minutes are playtime. The class engages in indoor soccer, bounces around on the stability balls, plays catch with 4 lb medicine balls, and throws Nerf balls at each other. They love to hit each other with those balls,” Nancy says with an amused smile. These lively class interactions brighten her day as well. “I laugh more with my more senior groups than anywhere else and no matter what kind of day I’m having. When I watch some of them working so hard and know what some of them are dealing with, it shuts me right up.”

What they’re dealing with can be considerable. Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, heart issues, joint replacements, and osteoporosis to name a few. Then there’s the fear of getting older. For Ann Levine, the fear of falling was impacting her quality of life as were aches in her hips and knees. “At first I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But after coming to Nancy’s classes for two years, it’s changed my attitude about getting old. I have core strength, no pain, and I have confidence that if I start to fall, I’ll be able to regain my balance.”

Many exercise trainers might not prefer to work with this demographic of clients because of their age or physical limitations, but Nancy clearly loves teaching this generation of exercisers. She knows her life would be less rewarding without them. “I love what I do with Hotchkiss students, but they’d be awesome and amazing with or without me. But for my ladies, without these classes, they might not be as a vibrant. For that reason, they mean so much to me.”

Party girls

While the exercise provides health benefits, there’s also the social aspect that impacts healthy aging. Nancy has observed that “For some women, there’s no place else they can go for this camaraderie. Some are pretty isolated.”
Donna Durbridge of the 9am class is the social coordinator for NOGs – Nancy’s Old Girls. Twice a week after class, they head out for coffee and twice a year they gather at Donna’s house for a BBQ and holiday celebration. New members of the class are always welcome and embraced.

Donna explains that social anxiety is not just for teens. Coming to this class for the first time can feel intimidating with its combination of new faces and physical demands. NOG members help ease that transition and create “a caring family group.” She wishes all older people had access to this kind of class and a person like Nancy. She comments, “If there were enough Nancys to do this work, we could save a lot on hospital bills.”

Everybody in the pool

Nancy’s water-based classes are also a worthy workout with a large social component. The intensity and cardio benefit in the water vary with individual effort and the use of the resistance hand and ankle accessories available at the pool.
These classes are an effective complement to the land-based workouts. Nancy explains, “Water workouts involve less joint trauma. The weightlessness created in the water produces a balanced workout. Opposing muscle groups must fire for each movement without gravity interfering.” In Nancy’s experience, water workouts are the perfect place to begin exercising if you’ve been inactive.

Groovy 50s and 60s music plays in the background. Nancy stands poolside and calls the exercises, demonstrating what they’re supposed to look like underwater and providing visual entertainment doing the Twist, imitating Elvis, and playing a mean air guitar to Credence Clearwater Revival. Women chat while bobbing up and down, creating waves, and laughter.

Nancy embraces the high level of social engagement in the pool, “If someone has the motivation to get out of their house, drive here, put on a bathing suit, get into water that’s less than warm, move a little, and talk a lot, I’m okay with that.”

Where the boys aren’t

Nancy possesses wonder and curiosity about this group, “Where did all these amazing women come from? Many of them went to college at a time most women didn’t. All of them are mentally fit and intelligent. How did they find this class?”

The answer: Word-of-mouth and Nancy’s devoted following. Over and over, every woman testifies to Nancy’s humility, expertise, dedication, and energy. They gush about positive changes to their bodies. For Deb Fails, “Nancy’s positive reinforcement makes you want to push a little harder. I started this class in September and now I’m doing planks.” Judy Gafney observes that Nancy treats each woman as an individual, “I feel like I have my own personal trainer. She offers help, explanations, and corrects my form.”

Rindy Higgins sums it up most succinctly, “This class means everything to me.”

For more information about the classes, availability, fee information, and schedule, email Nancy Vaughan at or call her at (860) 435-3163.