The Sisterhood of the Dumbbell meets three times a week at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Devon. "Sisterhood of the Dumbbell" is my name for the group, and Sharon Eisenhour, who kindly invited me to meet these iron-pumping ladies, and Jeanne Lynam, their inspirational leader, embraced my suggestion.
It's an even call whether it's superior to their previous informal name - "Herb and the Peaches" or, better yet, "Peaches and Herb."
"Peaches" refers, of course, to the women in the class, all ripe. Herb would be Herb Thal, an engineering consultant and the only man in the class. At 78, he's also the oldest.
It's telling that this group isn't fussy about its name. These Main Line women of a certain age, mostly in their 60s, aren't concerned about image and hype and "branding." They show up for class in baggy T-shirts and sweatpants, not figure-hugging Spandex. They care more about function than appearance, more about feeling good than looking good. They are doing their best to defy gravity but they are well past worrying about runway thighs or six-pack abs. Two women in the class have had double knee replacements.
"It's all about keeping people moving," said Lynam, summarizing her philosophy of fitness. "Everyone our age needs to be doing serious weight-bearing exercise. You're a fool not to."
Lynam, 61, has been leading exercise classes for a quarter century. By day, she teaches English at Radnor High School. This class grew out of a course she used to teach about 15 years ago at Conestoga High School as part of Main Line School Night. It was called "Body Sculpting" back then. These days, it's less about sculpting, more about keeping the clay from sagging and dropping off the armature.
The other night, I watched from the back of the church's spacious fellowship hall as Lynam put the Dumbbell Sisters - 17 showed up - through their paces. She's a wonderful advertisement for what she professes - 5-foot-5, 125 pounds, with a trim figure that fits well into dresses ranging from size 4 to 6. She was wearing a tank top that showcased her "guns" (gymspeak for arms). They are toned and shapely, with no triceps wattles, on a par with the magnificent upper limbs of first lady Michelle Obama.
When she was 44, Lynam was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, cancer of the plasma cells in bone marrow. She underwent chemo, radiation, T-cell injections, and finally a bone-marrow transplant. Throughout the ordeal, she practically had to be chained to her hospital bed. Far sooner than anyone expected (or her doctors advised), she was up and exercising - walking, lifting weights, leading classes with a fanny pack dripping meds.
Lynam began the class with a series of warm-up exercises straight from the dance aerobics playbook - marching, turning and weaving, tapping toes, lifting legs.
Then the main course: Dumbbells in hand, Lynam led the women through a varied menu of resistance exercises, some done standing up, others on a mat - overhead presses, triceps extensions, shoulder shrugs and arm raises, chest flyes, curls, crunches, leg raises, and some mysterious female rite involving the pelvis and glutes that probably best falls under the rubric "don't ask, don't tell."
Lynam kept the movements slow and gentle, calling for different weights - light, medium, or heavy - for different exercises. Nothing explosive, no macho competition to see who could hoist the most iron or do the most reps. Each woman chose a weight range she could handle. Some dumbbells weighed as little as two pounds; others, as much as 12.
Lynam didn't cajole or berate. Instead, she inspired by example, amused, and entertained. Between sets, she told stories (e.g., the challenge of entertaining four dogs and two cats at Thanksgiving). The music selection pleasingly tilted toward country, and Lynam had the class join her in the chorus of George Strait's "All My Ex's Live in Texas." She described one male musical artist as a "hottie," reassuring proof that the sap still flows.
During a cooldown exercise that resembled the yoga pose "downward dog," 17 derrieres soared high, if not wide.
"From gluteus maximus to gluteus minimus," Lynam declared. "This is where Art has a chance to see that our butts are smaller and tighter."
(Hard to say, actually - the light was low - but I appreciated the gesture.)
The word the Dumbbell Sisters used repeatedly to describe the class, and Lynam's genius, was fun. The women also raved about the camaraderie, the support system, the "connectedness," the motivating comfort and convenience, as well as the benefits of weight training - improved strength, posture, balance, agility.
"Some days, you don't think you can go," said Nancy Breitling, 67, a retired Radnor school district secretary from Strafford. "But once you come, you feel so much better."
For Betty Hirsch, 62, a career counselor from Bryn Mawr, lifting weights has been helpful in combating osteopenia, low bone-mineral density that is a precursor to osteoporosis. Before joining the class two years ago, she suffered from daily headaches. Now those headaches have vanished.
"It's made a huge difference in my life," she said. "I have more energy and strength. At our age, if you don't do something, you go downhill."