Lorrie Ward said it never crossed her mind to become a fitness instructor. Now, a year after starting teaching, Ward has a loyal following at the Madison Improvement Club in Phoenix.
The 62-year-old fitness instructor is committed to creating a space for people aged 65 and over to exercise with confidence. Ward was a finalist for the 2022 Instructor of the Year award from SilverSneakers, a national fitness company that caters to seniors who stay active.
Ward speaks in a lively and enthusiastic manner and expresses genuine concern for his students. She says fitness has always been her passion, even before becoming an instructor.
Ward said she played basketball in high school and received a basketball scholarship for college, and also played softball. But beyond that, she said she also taught her children to play several different sports and still trains to some degree.
“I come from a family of eight kids, five boys. So to grow the teams, I was the sixth entrant,” Ward said. “I guess you could say I’m a tomboy.”
Ward’s best friend and former owner of SilverSneakers, Mary Swanson, 67, was the one who pushed her to teach her first class. Swanson opened her own fitness center, The Madison Improvement Club, after selling her business, and in 2021 she insisted that Ward teach a class in partnership with SilverSneakers.
“She’s the wind under my wings,” Swanson said. “…I just encouraged her to try and she was just natural.”
Ward worked at SilverSneakers for 15 years building the network and eventually took on the role of COO, but she said it never crossed her mind to become an instructor. Now, a year after starting teaching, Ward has a loyal following at Madison, including Swanson.
Ward teaches a strength circuit class at 11 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday at Madison’s Phoenix through the SilverSneakers partnership. She says around 15 to 25 people attend the class depending on the time of year.
Ward says his group went so far that even his grandchildren had trouble keeping up when they attended.
“I have a strong group of people that I push and they are absolutely responsive and amazing about anything,” Ward said. “So we’re going a bit off the beaten path here, (more) than your normal SilverSneakers class.”
The class centers around chair exercises with weights and resistance bands, but Ward proudly said his group does things a little differently.
“You’ll find other SilverSneakers courses that are strictly chair-based,” Ward said. “We avoid the chair as much as possible.”
When asked why she thought this particular group had come this far, she gave all the credit to the individual members.
“They did all the work. I’m just their coach,” Ward said. “I’m just here to play some music and tell a few jokes and make them laugh.”
While Ward bragged about her group, her class members also held her in very high regard.
Nancy White, 68, started taking the course shortly after Ward started teaching. Since then, White said she only misses it if she’s been on vacation, even after undergoing knee replacement surgery. The procedure paused White for about two weeks and then started again.
“Lorrie makes all of us feel like we’re at our best,” White said. “It’s a pleasure to walk through the door.”
Swanson said she keeps track of what her members do with their lives, whether they’re heading out of town or on their way to a dentist appointment. She even wrote them personal cards.
“It’s kind of like she adopted all these grandparents,” Swanson said.
White said she could tell Ward looked after her and the other members who attended the class because she would notice small wins, like picking up an extra pound or two. White said she and Swanson have now moved up to 20-pound weights.
She said the class made it easier to get to the gym, which she said was hard to do at her age, and she saw real results.
Overall, though, it’s the community aspect — the “variety of people, their ages and their enthusiasm” — that has kept White coming back again and again.
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While the 2022 award ended up going to Jen Burgmeier, an instructor who has her own studio in Pennsylvania, Ward was one of five finalists among hundreds of nominees, according to Debbie Johnson, senior public relations manager at Tivity Health, the parent company of SilverSneakers.
Ward says she was so surprised to be a finalist that she didn’t believe the phone call she received from Johnson, which she said must have been a bad joke because it arrived on the day of the April Fool.
“It shocked me to know that I’ve only been doing this for less than a year here and have so much support from my members,” Ward said. “It was absolutely amazing.”
She joked that she hoped her members wouldn’t confuse her with someone else, but her group was truly like family to her.
“I love the older demographic, I love the exercise, and it’s such a safe and rewarding position,” Ward said.
The way Swanson and White described Ward’s instructional style as a non-judgmental space filled with laughter, encouragement and great music. This style clearly shows that there has been no confusion – Ward’s members seem to really appreciate his unique technique and, more than anything, his caring for everyone who attends his class.
“It’s a great community with Laurie at the helm, and she’s just fun,” White said. “She knows everyone. She encourages everyone. She is happy to see us all. It’s wonderful to walk through the doors here at the Madison.
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