Squirrell works full time in IT at the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, but three times a week she heads over to the Cherokee Fitness Complex for the evening, where she teaches zumba, dance fitness, tabata and, occasionally, spin.
“I think to be an instructor you have to enjoy being around people, and I love my community,” said Squirrell. “I have family here and friends here, and I think for me it’s about being able to give back. And I feel like I’m giving back.”
That feeling is compounded by the fact that all enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — as well as all non-enrolled hospital employees — can use the fitness center for free. Squirrell can invite her friends and co-workers to come out and exercise with her, and it won’t cost them a thing.
“I can’t give a lot, but if I can give the gift of health, I’m going to do that,” she said.
Squirrell grew up dancing, and she started running in the early 2000s — at 46, she’s training for her fourth marathon. But it wasn’t until about six years ago that she got certified as a fitness instructor. Squirrell started going to classes with Sussy Huskey, who said she could use someone to fill in for her when she couldn’t be there and urged Squirrell to get certified. Squirrell did just that, for years helping Huskey out as needed. But since January, she’s been working with the Cherokee Fitness Complex.
“To me it’s therapeutic,” Squirrell said. “Even here at the hospital when I’ve had a busy day and something isn’t going right, I’m actually excited to get to class, because it makes me happy. I get the endorphins — I know if I’m getting those endorphins, my girls are getting the endorphins. It’s just a big stress relief.”
Attendance fluctuates with the seasons. Class sizes shrink in the summer as people spend more time outside, taking advantage of the longer days, but with sunset coming earlier and the summer vacations at an end, Squirrell is seeing her classes grow once more.
“I think the classes that I teach have brought folks in that maybe wouldn’t come to the gym, because weightlifting and getting on a treadmill — that’s not for everybody,” she said.
But if the goal is to get toned and fit, then dance-based exercise classes do the trick just fine. Squirrell’s on the short side, so the gym got her a small stage to stand on while running her classes, allowing her to better see her students.
“I can see my regulars shrinking,” she said. “They’re toning and they’re getting smaller.”
In addition to losing inches, they’re growing their stamina and resilience to common diseases such as diabetes. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come between now and January, said Squirrell. That increased endurance, combined with shed pounds and toned muscle, causes a corresponding boost in confidence that’s rewarding to witness.
“People think it’s a cheesy thing when you tell them exercise is the fountain of youth. It really is,” said Squirrell. “I’m just amazed at some of the folks I see that are there daily, and I’m thinking they’re a lot younger than they are, but they’re not. To me it doesn’t matter what your age is or where you are in your physical fitness. It’s always the right time to jump in.”
Class schedules for the Cherokee Fitness Complex are available at www.facebook.com/cherokeefitnesscomplex or by calling 828.359.6494.