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Strength-training program leaders change lives across Wisconsin

After participating in a StrongWomen class for six months, Lori Anderson of Fond du Lac County experienced greater strength and ease in many of her daily activities from mowing her lawn and raking, to carrying 40-lb. bags of water softener salt to her basement.

“I love it! I believe in it so much I want to be a class leader so more people in my county can benefit from the program,” Anderson said.

The StrongBodies Program is the University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension Strength Training Program, developed by Professors Miriam E. Nelson and Rebecca Seguin. The exercise program has been proven in research studies to provide physical and mental health benefits ranging from disease prevention to an increase in confidence and socialization.

Several times a year, individuals like Anderson gather to be trained by Extension Educator Angela Flickinger.

“I never dreamed the program would grow so rapidly across the state. When I began teaching the StrongWomen class 13 years ago, I thought I was going to teach a 12-week class and move on to my next project,” Flickinger said. “Instead I spent the last 12 years teaching classes and training volunteer leaders across the state so that more Wisconsin residents have access to the program. In fact, that’s why we’ve modified the program name to StrongBodies, because we know that all genders benefit from strength training.”

That goal may be realized in a few years as the classes are now offered in more than half of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, led by over 900 leaders, with over 17,000 participants and counting.

Unlike health clubs or most exercise programs, the StrongBodies Program is delivered by volunteer leaders in non-profit community settings, often providing classes to residents of rural areas where no other physical fitness resource exists.

“Our goal is to take this evidence-based program to people where they currently are—because we know if you do the exercises consistently—they work!” Flickinger said.

Classes are taught in Extension offices, health care facilities, places of worship, schools and other locations. The cost of the program in most locations is a voluntary contribution. The funds are redistributed into the local community to enhance the program by providing all the equipment needed and training new leaders.

Data from the StrongBodies program indicates that this program benefits participants both physically and emotionally. Upon completion, there are known benefits of increasing strength, flexibility and endurance. Additional benefits included increased social connections, improved confidence. Long term participation in this program and strength training can lower the risks of many chronic illnesses including osteoporosis, for which one in two women are at risk. Yet only 7% of women strength train regularly.

“Most of us have not seen older adults in our lives actively strength training. Many participants have found themselves taking care of everyone around them, and then are awakened to taking care of themselves. We hope the StrongBodies program is bringing a new face to aging and creating spaces for people to engage in strength training.” Flickinger said.

Nancy Krueger, MSW, CPT is the Health and Wellness Coordinator for the Aging and Disability Resource Center serving Calumet, Outagamie and Waupaca counties. She has expanded the classes available in her three-county area by training over 90 volunteers.

“Growing this program happened naturally. Participants volunteered to become leaders so they could have the program in their hometowns,” Krueger said. “The program can reach more participants, the volunteer leaders get their workout in while inspiring others and everyone gets the benefits that consistent strength-training yields. It truly is a win-win for everyone!”

Leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Some are employees of health care providers, aging resource centers, assisted living centers, health departments or city recreation departments. Others are retired. Many, like Anderson, have been participants themselves. All want to bring the benefits of strength training to their communities.

UW-Madison Division of Extension provides a wealth of resources to start and maintain a successful StrongBodies program. From the 8-hour training, logistics and promotion tools, research, and participation forms, a leader receives the resources and guidance needed to start and maintain a successful program.

Learn how to participate in the StrongBodies program >

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