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Wimberley wants to be 'Fittest Little Town in Texas'

Pam LeBlanc, Fit City

Staff Writer
Austin 360
Carolyn Ellis, 81, center, participates in a city-sponsored fitness class. The classes, led by Helen Stutchbury, who owns an area yoga studio, cost $2.

Forget the spring-fed swimming holes, quaint shops and meringue-topped pies. Wimberley wants to be known for its superior fitness.

And from the looks of the 80 or so people sweating away at the Wimberley Community Center recently, it's not just talk.

Mayor Bob Flocke has spearheaded the effort to encourage Wimberley's 2,600 residents to lead healthier lifestyles. He shows up regularly for the city-sponsored, $2 exercise classes, held three mornings a week. And he commits what he calls random acts of fitness — if he spots you exercising while he's driving around in his 1967 tan Volkswagen bug, he'll hand you a green wristband or a canvas shopping bag proclaiming Wimberley "The Fittest Little Town in Texas."

"I'm passionate about this," says Flocke, 65, who has lost 100 pounds during the past four years in his own mission to shape up.

In 2008, Flocke, then a member of the City Council, applied for a grant that helped Wimberley land $7,000 used to conduct a survey, asking Wimberley residents about their health and fitness habits. The grant also paid for pedometers handed out as part of a community wellness challenge and to stage a race and fun run.

Alarmed about reports of the rising rates of obesity and determined to improve his own health, Flocke and others also pushed for the creation of a Mayor's Fitness Council, patterned after a similar group in Austin. Two years ago, the council started the fitness classes, which proved immediately popular.

"Blood pressure is down, flexibility is up and longtime pains are gone," says Flocke, who has been mayor for two years.

The city also organized monthly moonlight walks. Anyone can join locals at 7:30 p.m. the second Monday of each month at the entrance of Blue Hole Regional Park for a two-mile hike.

A health community fair takes place every February and a noncompetitive Volksmarch is scheduled in the spring. Now, the fitness council is looking at ways to encourage local restaurants to offer healthy options.

"Our town is small enough that we can actually make a change," says Michele McCullough, 29, owner of a coffee shop called Sip on the Square and a member of Wimberley's fitness council. "It's a ripple effect."

The most successful component so far has been the fitness classes, which are always packed. They focus on balance, breath and mind-body care, but instructor Helen Stutchbury, 48, who owns a yoga studio in Wimberley, doesn't call it yoga. That might scare away some people in a city with a large population of retirees.

"We use the word ‘fitness' class so everybody feels safe," she says. "It's focused on helping you feel good every day, and not on losing 10 pounds."

Stutchbury doles out tidbits of advice as she leads the class, and today she reminds her students to improve their balance by standing on one leg while they brush their teeth.

The class has become a citywide social event, with students showing up early and staying late to chat. The $2 price tag takes away the excuse that exercise programs are too expensive.

"If we create a community where health is a priority, it becomes the norm," Stutchbury says. "The stigma we have to overcome is that exercise is hard, that it means suffering."

Four generations of the Jackson family — Denise Jackson, plus her mother, daughter and granddaughter — attend the fitness classes when they can.

"It's so easy in our fast-food culture to get weaker and less healthy," says Jackson, 54. "Now we have a way to stop that cycle. We were headed the way of the rest of the country — overweight and out of shape, easily hurt. Now, we're stronger."

Kathleen Jane Raney, 69, a former dancer who was injured in an accident and now uses a walker, says her balance has improved since she started attending the classes twice a week. "Everything is computerized (these days)," she says. "People are not in touch with their bodies. When they get all that blubber on their bodies, they don't know how to get it off and keep it off."

Flocke says the effort is making a difference.

"It's preventive maintenance," says Barbara Rosen, 61, another member of the fitness council, who works in home health care. Some of her patients who have had knee or hip replacements are showing up for the fitness classes.

"We encourage each other," says Judy Dunn, 62, chair of the Mayor's Fitness Council.

At the community center, the hour and 15-minute class winds up with a few minutes of quiet relaxation. Stutchbury, the instructor, thanks the group for coming, bows slightly and says, "Namaste."

The energy level is so high the class erupts in applause.

Contact Pam LeBlanc at pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994. Twitter: @fitcityleblanc

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