15 years of early-morning workouts bind group

By Amy Geiszler-Jones | October 2, 2023

From left to right, Amy Schafer (partially obscured), Jan Fleming, Lynnie Wills, Steve Montague, Lois Graham and Nancy Montague circle the track at the Steve Clark YMCA. Photo by Amy Geiszler-Jones

More than just physical fitness motivates a group of Wichitans to hit the gym at 5:45 a.m. three days a week. They’ve found friendships and — whether they know it or not — maybe a boost of mental health wellness.

The group’s members first came together in September 2008 when Steve Rainbolt, Wichita State University’s director of track and field, started a community exercise program called Shocker Fitness. At its peak, 398 people were showing up for workouts at Cessna Stadium. The pandemic put a stop to the program in 2021, but about 20 participants kept going on their own.

“Instead of BFFs (best friends forever), we’re SFFs (Shocker Fitness friends),” said Amy Schafer, a former WSU employee and early Shocker Fitness buff.

Through the years, the group has not only met for early morning workouts, they’ve also gone to theater shows, dinner outings, Shocker sporting events and more. 

The SFFs now meet at the Steve Clark YMCA that opened on the WSU campus in January 2020. Schafer gave up her membership at another area gym and joined the Y to remain part of the group. Rainbolt, better known as “Coach Bolt,” and his wife, Kelly, are also regulars.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Kelly Rainbolt said. 

It turns out habits like these can be good for you in more ways that one.

New research of older adults has shown that being a regular social exerciser — which means having a workout buddy — not only has physical and social benefits but it can also have a positive impact on your brain health.

The study, which involved more than 4,300 older adults in Japan, found that participants who worked out with each other at least twice a week had a lower risk of developing cognitive impairment than those who work out alone or not at all, The Washington Post reported earlier this year. The social element of working out together was key. 

“The results, published in the Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics in January, suggest that regular social exercise may act as an effective one-two punch against cognitive decline in older adults,” the article said.

Shocker Fitness showed the appeal of group exercise. Rainbolt got the idea for starting it after attending Red Dog’s Dog Days, a popular community fitness program held at Memorial Stadium on the University of Kansas campus in Lawrence. 

“I thought, ‘We could do this at Cessna Stadium,’” Rainbolt said. “I figured I would show up early and unlock the gates so people could walk the stairs.”

It quickly became evident that the 33 people who showed up that first day were expecting a more organized fitness class, so Rainbolt started coming up with workouts that included stretching, push-ups, lunges and lifting weights — moves the SFFs still incorporate into their workouts. In response to demand, Rainbolt added late afternoon sessions as well.

After each 10-week session concluded, participants would gather for a social outing. Developing friendships led to even more social events.

Although COVID caused Rainbolt to discontinue Shocker Fitness, the SFFs and some former afternoon regulars have kept up their group workouts.

“We hold each other accountable,” SFF Lynnie Wills said.

Plus, the participants seem to genuinely like hanging out with one another. As the morning regulars wrapped up an evening interview for this article, they made plans to grab some food afterward — and show up bright and early the next day for a workout.

Contact Amy Geiszler-Jones at algj64@sbcglobal.net.