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Travel Club Focuses on Fitness

The 23 women enrolled in the water aerobics class in Spring Hill RECenter in McLean were, shall we say, miffed, when they learned the pool would be closed for a month in August to do some routine maintenance.

A majority of the women were senior citizens suffering from arthritis and counted on the class to help keep them active.

"We asked why are you doing this in August? Why aren't you doing it in January or something?" said Cynthia Neu, one of the students in the class. "They said it's the Fairfax County Park Authority. They always rotate the maintenance this way."

The women were determined to continue their exercise regime and after some research by Neu, booked a week-long cruise. With all 23 women signed up, the group was able to bring along their teacher, Jim Seeley, for free and arrange to have private access to the ship's pool in the mornings.

Four years later, the Fun & Fitness Travel Club, as they dubbed themselves, is still going strong and the cruises have proved so popular they have become a monthly instead of yearly event.

The club's membership has grown as well, from the original 23 women to 900 people drawn from all over the county and with 60 people booked on the September cruise to the Virgin Islands.

"I WAS TAKING this exercise class with Jim, and Cynthia was in it and everything just sort of clicked," said Betty Bowell, 81, one of the "Founding Mothers" of the club. "I just felt so secure with them."

The club is independent of the Park Authority with Neu, 53, serving as the travel coordinator. And like any private club, there are a few rules members must abide by.

Members must be at least 35 years old, although a majority are in the 63- to 80-range. Clubbers must be willing to do the water exercises each day during the cruise. There is no smoking or drinking and membership is by invitation only.

"We're very private. We don't advertise, but we're very integrated," Neu, a McLean resident, said. "We just all know each other."

While the members are open to accepting new recruits, youngsters are prohibited, even though some members invite older relatives on the excursions.

"There are no children allowed. This is not a family event," Neu said. "It's just a few selected boyfriends."

The club is not just for women, however, there are a few male members.

"The cruises are usually like in class. There are 40 or 50 women and one guy," said Charlie Thunell, 85, of Fairfax. "It's for everybody and every once in awhile, another guy comes along and I have some competition."

Actually, Thunell usually takes his girlfriend, Pat Cadwallader of Arlington, on the cruises.

THE CLUB MEMBERS have access to the cruise ship's pool beginning at 7 a.m. for three 45-minute classes each morning. The pool is typically indoors to avoid sunburn, and is heated, filtered, salt water, which Neu said helps make the exercisers more buoyant.

Afterwards, the members are free to go ashore or partake in other ship activities. In addition, Seeley offers an afternoon chair yoga class and the members deck walk either before or after dinner.

"Most people, by the time they are 63, 65 years old, arthritis is coming in," Neu said. "The one thing doctors will tell you is to keep moving. If you exercise, you keep your weight down, you keep your water retention down."

THE MONTHLY CRUISES make a difference, said Bowell, a Fairfax resident, and having Seeley along is a bonus.

"He has so much charisma. All of the ladies are in love with him," Bowell said. But on a more serious note, Bowell credits the classes with keeping her in shape.

"I've profited from the class. If I hadn't taken the class I would be in a wheelchair by now," she said. "You'd be surprised how much it helps. There is no pressure on the feet when you're in the water."

Neu said the exercise keeps the seniors fit and being in water acts much like going to a physical therapist.

"They look fabulous. The water exercise is the reason why our people are 80 years old and are moving like they're 55 and 65 years old," Neu said.

It also provides the members an opportunity to have ready-made companions.

"The first time I went on a cruise I swore I'd never do it again. I didn't have a lady friend with me or know anybody. There were all these young couples," Thunell said. "Now I go with a group of people I know. I've been on nine cruises."

In addition, to the cruises, the club members get together for a monthly luncheon to exchange photographs.

Active Fairfax County senior enrolled in water aerobics or yoga classes interested in finding out more about the Fun & Fitness Travel Club can contact Cynthia Neu at 703-827-0414.