By Fran Memberg

One by one, members of the “Easy Does It” water exercise class ease into the pool at the Cowart Family/Ashford Dunwoody Y for an hour of exercise.

Beforehand, their locker room chatter reveals a familiarity with one another’s lives. The conversation often continues during class and afterward in the hot tub. Then it’s back to the locker room and, shedding bathing suits for street clothes, out the door, going their separate ways.

Well, not really.

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Friendship was an unintended benefit of the class. All the members sought out water exercise for health reasons, whether to keep active, to alleviate the pain of such conditions as fibromyalgia and arthritis, or to recuperate from illness, injury or joint replacement surgery.

Most of the women – and a smattering of men – range in age from their 60’s to their 80’s; the oldest regular is 90. Most class members live near the Y in neighborhoods just north of Brookhaven, although some come from Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Roswell.

They do lunch, go to movies and live performances, provide support for one another during life’s trials, rejoice in each other’s successes, go on occasional field trips, throw an annual Christmas party and decorate their bathing suits once a year for Ugly Swimsuit Day, complete with prizes. They also stay connected via e-mail.

Alice Hyche, 84 and a great-grandmother, is one of the original EDI class members. While she exercises, her husband swims laps. The couple often goes to concerts to hear class member and Brookhaven resident Carolyn Hatcher and her husband sing. The Hyches have shared their homegrown figs with classmate Ruth Hahn, whose late husband loved the fruit.

“The group is family,” said Hyche, of Roswell.

When Brookhaven resident Hahn, 81, had to stop attending EDI while she cared for her ill husband, class members visited him and sent cards and e-mails. “When he died in March, they were my support group, and when hospice called and asked if I needed to attend their support group, I said I already have one,” said Hahn.

Becky Weber of Sandy Springs joined EDI about 18 months ago because of a shoulder injury that prevented her from swimming laps. When her shoulder improved, she could’ve resumed swimming, but has stayed with the class. “I love the class routine, the members [who are] now friends, our camaraderie,” Weber said.

Among the class are active or retired teachers, professors, researchers, U.S. Naval officers and journalists. Pam Buckmaster of DeKalb County recently received a master’s degree in public health and several EDI classmates attended her graduation party.

Hyche has her own You Tube video demonstrating her invention for making decorations for crocheted items. She’s written crochet books, which her classmates bought. Hyche has overcome several health crises in the years since she started EDI; her husband recently returned to swimming laps following an injury. Water exercise is “the best thing I ever did for myself,” Hyche said. “It has kept both of us going.”

At her doctor’s suggestion, Maria Frangis enrolled in EDI to strengthen her leg muscles four months before hip replacement surgery two years ago, and returned to the class after surgery. “He said it would make my recovery easier and speedier,” said Frangis, 79, who lives in Brookhaven. “I go twice a week and feel so much better as a result.”

As the EDI class has discovered, “The social component is important [because] it keeps you going back,” said Derek Clewley, a physical therapist with Benchmark Physical Therapy near Northside Hospital. He added that people who experience pain doing exercise on land can usually exercise pain free in the water while still getting the benefits of increased heart rate, strength and stamina.

Franké Patrick of Roswell, who teaches the class on Fridays, said many members of other water exercise classes she teaches have formed friendships, but not as close as the bonds of the Ashford Dunwoody Y group. “At the Y, they make a big deal” about socializing,” said Patrick, an Aquatic Exercise Association-certified instructor.

Patrick and EDI class members give Linda Stacy, the Monday and Wednesday instructor, high marks for enhancing the group’s camaraderie since she joined the Y staff in 2004. Stacy, who is also AEA-certified as well as president of the Aqua Society of Greater Atlanta, created a class directory, instituted Ugly Swimsuit Day, sends get well cards and stays in touch with members who have been absent due to illness. She also adds special instructional touches that eliminate the tedium that often accompanies exercise regimens – for example, music to which members often sing along, a recycled Barbie doll dubbed Chlorina whose plastic joints Stacy manipulates to demonstrate exercises, and concluding each class with a so-called “big belly laugh.”

The group’s friendship extends to Stacy as well.

“When my mother died this year, I can’t begin to tell you how this group supported me, came to the funeral, [made a] generous gift to me in honor of my mother. I survived this traumatic event because these people truly care about me,” said Stacy, who lives in Brookhaven. “Nothing prepared me for the bond I feel with them. They are so concerned and caring.”

Writer Fran Memberg has been a member of the Ashford Dunwoody/Cowart Y’s Easy Does It water aerobics class since August.