Bouncing back

Rebecca Parton started a fitness class to fight chronic pain. Now, she's helping other women rebound, too

Rebecca’s life lesson learned

Digest other peoples’ opinions but keep trusting your heart

There’s nothing overtly remarkable about this exercise class. A dozen or so women execute a series of rhythmic grapevine steps, do squats with stability balls and lift light hand weights. But there’s more going on than what you see at first glance. One of the women has undergone back surgery and was told by medical professionals that she’d never do an aerobics class again. Another is recovering from serious injuries from a car collision. Many have suffered a lifetime of physical problems, others a variety of emotional difficulties. And the instructor—trim, vibrant 41-year-old Rebecca Parton of Fort Erie, Ont.—has had the longest journey.

No matter what her fitness clients have been through—debilitating pain, major depression, marital problems, weight gain—Becky has experienced it herself. She challenged herself and won. That’s what makes her a Soul Model to the women in this fitness class as well as to her family, friends and colleagues. Three years ago, no one—least of all Becky—thought she’d be winning a contest. Her life was, to put it kindly, e a bit of a mess. First there was her divorce—and it hadn’t been pretty, leaving her with two young girls to raise. Then her beloved 17-year-old niece, Katie, died of a rare form of cancer. There was a bright spot when Becky married her second husband, Chris, 10 years her junior. But no sooner had the newlyweds bought a modest house with a big mortgage than Chris opted to take a huge pay cut to become an electrician’s apprentice.

That was right around the time Becky, going on 38, got pregnant. In her second trimester she herniated a disc—probably from years of lifting in her job as an educational assistant for special-needs children and teenagers. She went into hospital with excruciating back pain. A specialist told her she would probably need surgery. With the combination of inactivity and late-night Slushie binges, Becky’s weight soared to more than 200 pounds during the pregnancy. It didn’t drop much after Turner was born by caesarean section, a big healthy boy.

Then things got worse. Turner was wakeful and cranky. There they’d be, night after night—Turner crying, Becky sobbing. Finally, her best friend, a nurse, said, “Enough is enough. This is bigger than you think.” Becky reluctantly agreed she should call the doctor. “It was the most horrible time of my life,” she says now.

Her doctor immediately prescribed medication to treat postpartum depression, and a couple of weeks later, a corner of the cloud started to lift. It was just enough for Becky to imagine her next step: getting control over her back pain and weight. She was well aware of the positive effect that exercise can have on depression, so when the baby was six months old she decided to take up fitness classes again. She’d been heavy and out of shape once before, in her mid- 20s. Back then, in the intimidating era of Jane Fonda leg warmers and spandex thongs, she’d started out as the token back-row girl in exercise class. But she dropped the weight and worked her way up to instructor and personal trainer. Now, however, her physiotherapist told her that her back was in no shape for fitness class. Undaunted, Becky tried a step class. She couldn’t do it. She tried a basic aerobics class. She couldn’t do it. “I’ll make my own class,” she told herself.

She got a few fellow back sufferers together and rented a private room at a local athletic club. They made a pitiable little group that first evening in their assortment of baggy sweats, joking they might be in such pain they would have to tie one another’s shoelaces. The class, which involved a bit of marching and some attempts to raise their arms above their e heads, started at 6 p.m. and was pretty much finished by 6:30. Becky, who was beginning to notice that both her back and her spirits were slowly gaining strength, urged the group to persist twice a week. “If you’ve had a bad day and you can drag yourself to the gym, it makes all the difference in the world,” she told them.