HAMMOND — At age 66, Norma Schexnayder is living a healthier life by focusing on her future, making the most of every day and teaching others how to become healthier — both physically and mentally.
The active senior teaches exercise and dance classes daily at the Hammond Recreation Center. Schexnayder also teaches computer classes to other seniors.
While her goal is to teach participants the techniques of proper exercise and dance, she also aims to help participants, from age 40 to over 90, realize that they can lose weight, manage an illness or just start each day feeling better about themselves.
The exercise and dance classes help participants develop leg strength, flexibility, coordination, agility and strength, she said.
All of them have learned to perform the Cupid shuffle, the Harlem shuffle, the freeze and the Wobble.
Before her affinity for exercise, Schexnayder struggled with depression for years, which ultimately lead to obesity. At her heaviest, Schexnayder, who is 5 feet tall, weighed close to 300 pounds and dealt with increasingly high blood pressure.
When Schexnayder’s father, Norman Cali, died in 1999, Schexnayder, who had cared for her father after he had a stroke, “would cry and cry and then began eating and eating more and more.”
Soon, the weight became unbearable and made the simplest of tasks — such as sitting in an airplane and movie seats or climbing stairs — a daily struggle.
“I had too much weight I was carrying around and being so depressed didn’t help,” Schexnayder said. “I was so heavy, I became withdrawn and didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
Schexnayder gave up, she said, and eventually used a wheelchair to get around. Something had to give.
In 2007, Schexnayder underwent gastric bypass surgery, but the procedure wasn’t a quick fix.
“As the weight started dropping off, I began at a fitness center with my husband,” Schexnayder said. The exercise, combined with medication for depression, changed her life, she said.
“I began going to the (line dancing) classes,” she said. “Several ladies at class took me under their wing and helped me to catch on to the dances. I loved it and couldn’t wait to go to class each week.”
After studying dancing videos on You Tube, Schexnayder brought what she had learned to the classes and began teaching the newfound techniques to others in the class.
Schexnayder is working to become a certified group fitness instructor. She has taken courses at North Oaks for exercise safety and has attended two workshops focusing on senior exercise.
Ethel Corbin, 68, of Hammond, started taking the exercise classes “to live a healthier life and lose some weight.”
The classes, she said, have helped her relax and instill a feeling of accomplishment.
Phil Totora, of Independence, said he goes to a private gym for two hours of active exercises daily but that coming to the class at the Hammond Recreation Center “makes you use muscles and joints that I don’t use during that class (at the gym).”
“She’s a motivator, she’s perky and she’s vibrant,” Totora, 63, said of Schexnayder. “She will get you moving.”
Mary Recotta, 77, said Schexnayder makes the class fun and it gives her something productive to do.
“If I was at home, I wouldn’t be exercising,” Recotta said.
Margie Self, 70, has now scratched exercise and dancing from her “bucket list.” The exercise and line dancing class participant said she’s improving both skills thanks to Schexnayder’s patience and willingness to offer additional help.
Seniors Activity Coordinator Linda Irwin, who encouraged Irwin to teach the classes, said Schexnayder has inspired others “to get out of their apartment and get moving.”
“She reminds me of a rose,” Irwin said. “She just blossomed.”
In addition to their daily classes, the group of line dancers can be seen around the Hammond area performing their routines at events and nursing homes, Schexnayder said.