It's 8 a.m., and 18 "bone-builders" in Ashland are bouncing through hallways at The Grove, keeping their muscles warm and heart rates high in between exercises.

They belong to a fitness class called "Building Bones Step by Step," an approach that focuses on improving muscle strength and balance while slowing bone loss.

It sounds like heavy-duty stuff, only it doesn't exactly feel like participants are slaving away. They're smiling and laughing. The camaraderie is tangible. They're having a good time.

So what's going on here?

"Fun!" laughs Ashland's Stephanie Stewart. "I come here to feel good."

Now in its eighth year, the class is taught by Ashland fitness veteran Carol Lee Rogers, who based it on research by Oregon State University's Bone Research Lab. She combines aerobics, weight exercises and core training to build strength, balance and independence.

"I was worried about my bones, and I wanted to fit into a bikini," laughs Stewart. "Now I feel strong, healthy and beautiful."

With its roots in exercise science, the program uses movements proven to combat osteoporosis. You won't see the heavy weights and exercise machines common in gyms.

Rogers instead opts for working against the mass of one's own body. Lunges, squats, toe-touches, calf-raises and "steppers" — boxes built to simulate stairs — reinforce lower-body strength. "Planks," "bicycles," arm extensions and shoulder-raises build core and upper-body strength.

The workouts are tailored to varying levels of ability.

"The classes are done at an inviting pace, which is great," says five-year member JoAnn Houghton. "The class doesn't usually leave me sore because I can work at my own pace."

Rogers periodically alternates exercises to keep the class exciting and prevent muscles from falling into a rut.

"You can't get all the body's muscles in one workout," says Rogers. "Alternating exercises shocks the muscles and works them in different ways, allows them to continue growing."

The program approaches the problem of bone loss from an interesting angle.

"When we are young, our bones are much more pliable," says Rogers. "Now that we're older, our bones are rigid, so what do we do when they need to be strengthened?"

The answer, she says, is to reinforce them with muscle.

"When muscles get fatigued, they pull at the bone," says Rogers. "This subjects the bone to forces stronger than those of daily activity, which in turn allows it to regain strength."

Rogers also uses controlled-impact exercises to shock the bone.

"Shocking the bone can help prevent further bone loss," says Rogers, who guides her class through a series of stomping exercises design to reinforce the bones in the legs.

The benefit of the exercise is that, if you begin to fall, you're less likely to end up with a broken hip.

"I've had members say they were able to catch themselves when they tripped," says Rogers.

The health benefits aren't all that keep members coming back.

"The camaraderie is huge," says Stewart. "Everyone is very able and supportive both in and out of class."

Reinforcing the happy and healthy lifestyle, the group often meets outside of class for a potluck.

"We're a big family," says member Anne Bellegia. "I've made a lot of great, social connections from this class. Everyone is very supportive of each other," she says.

"If I miss a class, someone will ask me, 'Oh, were you traveling?' and I'll laugh. 'No, I was on my couch.' I have a tendency to fall off the wagon, so the support is fantastic."

The Building Bones classes run from 8 to 8:55 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. For more details, see www.youcandoitnow.net.

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