Strength In Numbers

Longtime coach helps fellow seniors stay fit

By Jessica Laskey
August 2023

Helen Dittus’ workout regimen is impressive. Every morning, she wakes up at 5:15 to take care of her two cats. Then she walks for an hour.

After breakfast, she goes to the gym. Then she teaches a senior exercise class at Belle Cooledge Library or Belle Cooledge Community Center. She finishes the day with another 1.5-mile walk.

The fact that Dittus turned 85 in April makes her workout impressive, though she insists she’s not superhuman.

“I work out because I want to be able to move pots around in my garden and do what I want. How many 85-year-old ladies do you know who can lift a 40-pound pot of dirt?” she says. “You’ve got to be able to do things for yourself.”

Dittus’ commitment to fitness started when she was diagnosed with polio. She was 11, growing up in Capay Valley. After two months in the hospital, physical therapy helped her regain control of her left side. At home, Dad hit balls for her to catch to keep her strength up.

Dittus recovered and became a top athlete in high school. After her first marriage, she moved to Sacramento and joined a volleyball team. That led to a traveling softball team that went to the national finals four times.

Eventually, Dittus coached girls softball. She took her team to regional finals. When she remarried, her husband introduced her to the men’s softball team at Mather Air Force Base. She soon coached the men, plus a high school girls team.

All that coaching led to what she does today, teaching no-cost fitness classes for seniors, ages mid-60s to 90s.

“I actually started as a participant in the class,” says Dittus, who lives in South Land Park. “I ended up subbing for the teacher in 2012 and she left in 2017, so I took over the class.”

Dittus started her own class at the behest of fellow exercisers.

“The young lady (the original teacher) was so fast, the seniors couldn’t keep up,” Dittus says. “My classmates said, ‘Why can’t you do it?’ So on off days, I started teaching my own class behind the library. It started with only five or six people, but it continued to grow. Now I have between 35 and 40 people year-round.”

Dittus and her squad run in place, stretch, do aerobics to music, lift weights, squeeze rubber balls for grip strength and work on balance. Her techniques are gleaned from having studied trainers and her years of coaching.

“I also make them stretch their mouths,” Dittus says. “Today I had them say ‘A-E-I-O-U,’ then ‘Y.’ I said ‘Y—why are you still here? It’s time to go home.’ They never know what I’m going to come up with.”

Class participants enjoy the psychic benefits of group work. She says, “For a lot of elderly people, including myself, this class might be the only social outing they have that day.”

Dittus teaches free senior exercise classes at Belle Cooledge Community Center at 5699 South Land Park Drive on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8–9 a.m., and behind Belle Cooledge Library at 5600 South Land Park Drive on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8–9 a.m.
Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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