Age is just a number for 96-year-old fitness instructor

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Hildegard12Hildegard Gigl, 96, leads an exercise class at Hawthorne Terrace independent retirement center in Wauwatosa on Thursday, Sept. 29. She uses soup cans for weights during an arm workout. More photos of Gigl and the exercise session can be viewed and purchased at http://photos.chnonline.org. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)What kind of shape do you expect to be in at the age of 90? Most of us would probably be happy just to get there, but with a name like Hildegard Gigl (pronounced giggle), she has learned to laugh at her limitations while managing to lead a life more active than many half her age. This super-fit great grandmother has run the exercise classes at Hawthorne Terrace independent retirement center for five years, managing to work up a sweat twice a week even after undergoing hip surgery followed by a serious infection two years ago.
Gigl is proving age is definitely just a number. Most might wonder how a 96-year-old woman could teach a fitness class. Well, Gigl began taking the classes when she moved to Hawthorne 14 years ago and just never stopped.
“When I first moved here, this professional gal from the YMCA did the classes and then she moved because her husband got another job,” said Gigl. “The ‘Y’ gave our assistant secretary the exercises and she did them with us, but then one time she had to leave so she asked me to take over for a bit. It happened again a little while later and finally it came to me full time. No one else seemed to mind, so I kept on doing it.”
Mary Jo Flanagan who is just 82, has taken her class since moving to Hawthorne Terrace with her husband, Gerald, five years ago,  and says that 96 is just a number.
“She doesn’t act like a 96-year-old person, and wow, she keeps everyone going and counts and exercises along with us,” she said. “This gal is quite an example of how to age with grace and a lot of stamina.”
The twice-a-week classes garner the greatest attendance on Tuesday mornings where it is not uncommon to have 20 women of various ages sweating, stretching and moving. To make sure that no one is feeling left out due to physical limitations, Gigl makes sure that the exercises are appropriate for everyone.
“We do some exercises where we stand behind a chair, or stand against the wall, or even sit in a chair,” she explained. “But we don’t get on the floor because most of us couldn’t get up again. We have some who come who have had hip, shoulder or knee surgeries and they do what they can – I don’t want anything real strenuous for them.”
A monthly senior newsletter highlights an exercise of the month, which Gigl often brings to the class to try.
“However, we don’t do anything that involves rolling around on a big ball,” laughed Gigl. “That is not something that is right for our people. But, if I find anything that might be nice, we try it. Our classes are very informal and it seems to be helping all of us become more limber. Some people tell me that they didn’t want to get up and come to classes in the morning, but that if ‘Hildegard can do it, I can, too.’ Who knows? Maybe I am doing some good.”
However, don’t be fooled; while the 30-minute classes are not strenuous, Flanagan admitted that Gigl is no pushover.
“Everyone is amazed and impressed, and, of course, a little jealous of what she does,” she said. “We have a hard time keeping up with her. But she makes everything fun – she is really the sweetest and most fun person you would ever want to meet, and she has such a great sense of humor.”
Since she was a young girl, Gigl was involved in gymnastics and appreciated the value of keeping physically fit. After graduating high school, she attended the former Spencerian Business College and worked for several lawyers before meeting and marrying her husband, Clarence.
“After we got married, I stayed home and took care of my children – after all 1933 wasn’t a good time for a job anyway,” she explained. “I didn’t do any formal exercising then, but I took care of myself because I always had the children to think about.”
The couple belonged to the former Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, Milwaukee, before becoming members at St. Pius X, Wauwatosa, after moving to another residence. Clarence died May 13, 1996. Gigl credits her faith and good sense of humor for getting her through all of the difficult times in her life.
“I think I had a good sense of humor even before marrying someone with a name that sounds like giggle,” she said. “But we always went to Mass on a regular basis and when Clarence retired, we would have breakfast every morning and then say the rosary afterward. Then he would go his way and I would go my way. If we took a drive that lasted more than an hour, we would say the rosary on the way there, too. I tried to instill this in my children – but it didn’t really work with them.”
In 1990, Gigl took water aerobics at Mount Mary College until her doctor insisted she stop due to severe arthritis. She remained active with the gentler movements of the Hawthorne Terrace classes that were not so taxing on her joints. Ideally, she admitted she should exercise each day, but only exercises with the class.
“I do keep busy and walk around and do stuff here,” she said, laughing. “So I am not totally lazy.”
A self-described chocoholic, Gigl has few other vices and is not obsessed with anything, save a Shirley Temple at Hawthorne Terrace’s twice weekly cocktail hour. She watches her diet, socializes often, prays a daily rosary, leads the rosary in the chapel each Saturday before Mass, leads the creative craft classes, and keeps busy with needlepoint and jigsaw puzzles.
“At Christmas my kids and grandkids always give me jigsaw puzzles, because, really, at my age, what do I need for gifts?” she said. “But I enjoy putting them together  – some I keep and some I throw away. I keep the ones with pictures that I really like.”

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