BLACKSBURG — When Judy and Merle Pierson’s baby great granddaughter is old enough to talk, she can brag that her great grandparents are fitness instructors — certified professional ones.
Not many septuagenarians can make that claim, especially ones who didn’t start going to fitness classes until their 60s.
“We just fell in love with group fitness classes when we started going in our retirement,” said Judy. “We wanted to share our enthusiasm with others. It wasn’t long before I became a certified fitness instructor, about 13 years ago.”
Merle soon followed. Between them, this 77-year-old dynamic duo leads at least 14 classes a week, teaching at the Blacksburg Recreation Center, Giles Wellness Center and The Weight Club in Blacksburg. Their joint repertoire includes fitness fundamentals, yoga, strength training, yogalates, Healthy Backs and Bodyflow — a choreographed blend of yoga, pilates and tai chi.
“We’ve always had an active lifestyle — running and swimming — but we’re more fit now than we’ve ever been,” said Judy.
“These dynamos are our oldest fitness instructors, but you’d never know it,” said Joy Herbert, senior programs supervisor at Blacksburg Community Center.
Class participants range from teens to a few in their 90s, Merle said.
Judy’s Healthy Backs fitness class at the community center has been recommended by doctors and physical therapists. In fact, Brenda Miller of Core Physical Therapy in Blacksburg has accompanied a shoulder patient to the class, helping him determine how to do the exercises that will most benefit his condition.
“I think the class is great. They all rave about Judy,” Miller said. “I recommend it.”
“I started Healthy Backs about eight years ago, and now I have about 40 regular patrons, including many who have had major surgeries, such as knee, hip and shoulder replacements,” said Judy.
Merle also teaches Healthy Backs, at the Giles Wellness Center between Pearisburg and Narrows.
Looking at the Piersons’ toned bodies and vibrant energy level, you’d assume exercise is the fountain of youth. They both participate in exercise classes at The Weight Club; in fact, Merle takes Judy’s Body Flow. When they aren’t involved in fitness classes, the Piersons manage to get more exercise at their Newport area farm, where they raise dairy goats and keep horses. Judy has been teaching dog obedience classes for more than 45 years.
Surprisingly, both Piersons have physical ailments — Merle deals with a shoulder issue and Judy discovered she had degenerative disc disease two years ago. But the right exercise helps, they both say, and they give class participants options that make exercise easier for their specific maladies.
“Exercise helps people optimize their quality of life on all fronts,” Merle said. “It improves well-being and optimizes balance, strength and flexibility. If anything is the fountain of youth, exercise is.”
“Doing 30 minutes of exercise a day adds 15 quality years to your life,” added Judy. “Leading fitness classes is also really good for my brain. I memorize everyone’s name in every class. And all my exercises in my routine. Bodyflow is especially challenging. They have a different ‘release’ every quarter, so you end up doing all kinds of different things choreographed to different music four times a year. I memorize all of them and recite them when I drive around between classes.”
Judy, a self-proclaimed people person, has a background in counseling. After the couple’s three children were grown, she went to Bible college and became a pastoral counselor at Foursquare Church in Christiansburg.
Merle, a food microbiologist, is the former head of Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science & Technology. He spent the last six years of his career commuting from Washington, D.C., where he was deputy undersecretary for food safety, then Undersecretary for Research, Education, and Economics in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He continues his USDA association as chairman of the board of trustees of their Graduate School USA, a private nonprofit educational institution headquartered in Washington, D.C.
In their spare time, the Piersons went SCUBA diving all over the world. As certified dive masters, they have been to the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, the Red Sea, the Caribbean, and joined an underwater archaeology expedition in Israel, where they unearthed ancient pottery. As underwater cave divers, they have explored the Cenotes cave in Mexico — one of the most dangerous SCUBA dives in the world
“There was a time when we switched from sitting home worrying about the kids as they grew up to having them worry about us,” said Judy.
In recent years, the Piersons have been too busy with fitness classes and the farm to keep up with SCUBA diving, except for an infrequent dip in the New River.
Their class schedule includes Healthy Backs at Blacksburg Recreation Center for Judy and Strength Training at the same site for Merle. He also teaches Healthy Backs in Giles and Yoga in Newport through the Giles Wellness Center. Merle leads Yogalates and Fundamental Fitness at the Weight Club and Judy leads Bodyflow there two days a week, as well as some Saturdays.
“They are integral assets here — our lights really,” said Lauren Blackburn, group fitness director at the Weight Club.