Working out at work: Teachers take advantage of campus weight room and swimming pool

February 6, 2024 — by William Cao and Eric Shi
Graphic by Amy Miao
AP Statistics Teacher Seema Patel picks up a barbell in a deadlift while Speech Language Pathologist Ronda Vierra practices her freestyle technique.
Some teachers work out and practice self-care together during their unscheduled periods.

After the bell rings and students shuffle out of class, most teachers spend their unscheduled periods crafting lesson plans, grading assignments or taking a much-needed coffee break in the staff lounge. However, statistics teacher Seema Patel and speech-language pathologist Ronda Vierra often spend their unscheduled periods at the school’s fitness facilities, working to fulfill their lifelong exercise goals.

Having both been actively involved in fitness for decades, they now dedicate several days a week to completing fitness routines in their free time during unscheduled periods and outside of school. 

Math teacher finds joy in combining CrossFit and cardio

Under the guidance of Physical Education teacher Yuko Aoki, Patel has been following a strict CrossFit workout regimen in the SHS Fitness Center for years. 

“Ms. Aoki gives me workouts for the day, which include a brief warm-up and main workout,” Patel said. “Last week, one of the workouts I did was five rounds of ten lunges, situps, pushups, deadlifts and overhead presses. Aoki spontaneously comes up with a workout every day — it just depends on her.”

Patel finds time in and out of school to get her workout sessions in, sometimes conducting multiple workouts a day and working out for six days each week on average. For the days with multiple workouts, she often follows up a hard CrossFit regimen in the Fitness Center with another half-hour walk or hike in the evening after she gets home.

Leaning more into cardiovascular development, Patel often hikes up Canyon Road or runs along trails. Her favorites include a hill right above downtown Saratoga, Almaden Quicksilver County Park in South San Jose and Rancho San Antonio in the foothills of South Los Altos. Unlike her weight training and CrossFit fitness journey, which only started six years ago after Saratoga High’s fitness center was newly furnished, she has been regularly hiking, walking and biking for around 20 years.

During the days Patel finds herself not on campus, she opts to go to 24-Hour Fitness for her workout sessions. Having been to both the school gym and outside gyms, she praises the school gym for its greater accessibility to beginners. 

“Our school’s gym caters to all levels of students and people rather than just the highly skilled and fit,” she said. “When I go lift weights at 24 Hour Fitness, they’re heavy. Their lightest [barbell] bar is 45 pounds, whereas our school gym’s lightest bar is 15 pounds, meaning you can slowly add up weight to cater towards all skill levels.”

Patel credits Aoki with inspiring her initial passion for CrossFit and weight training. Before working with Aoki, Patel said she felt demoralized by the school’s gym facility because of her relative inexperience with heavy weights.

“I was extremely intimidated by the [fitness] facility because I couldn’t really do stuff,” Patel said. “But, Aoki said we had the same unscheduled period and offered to work with me during my unscheduled [period] to teach me the fundamentals.”

 She noted that Aoki started her with weights equivalent to “sixth-grade PE standards” and taught her the proper form to do all of the weight movements correctly. Under Aoki’s supportive guidance, Patel overcame her fear that she would injure herself by lifting weights that were too heavy. 

She is now unafraid to do movements beyond those permitted by weight machines, which, while more controlled and safe, offer less flexibility in the types of movements trained. Patel feels more at ease lifting the gym’s free weights, which rely entirely on her body for support, rather than a machine. In fact, her deadlift started from 25 pounds and has since improved to around 95 to 110 pounds.

Patel reiterates her belief that getting exercise — no matter what kind — is beneficial for one’s physical and mental health. 

“It’s good for your mental health to work out [and] doesn’t matter what [type of workout it] is. I feel better when I do CrossFit and have noticed my strength increase,” Patel said. “My main goal is to continue increasing weight but not get hurt while doing so.”

Speech-language pathologist seeks comfort in swimming

Ever since she developed an interest in swimming at age 5, Vierra has continued it as a lifelong hobby. At 14, she swam on the Almaden Cabana Club swim team and joined her high school’s diving team. In college, she swam in the pool to keep in shape.

Even now, swimming is still her preferred form of exercise. On every Blue Day during lunch and sixth period (her unscheduled period), Vierra swims in the school with Health and Driver’s Education teacher Amy Obenour. In the past, they would also swim with Spanish teacher Stephany Marks, who also had the same unscheduled period.

“Obenour and I have been lucky enough to share an unscheduled period for quite a few years now,” Vierra said. “I think it’s super important for teachers, especially now, to practice self-care because there’s a lot of stress involved with our job. One of our luxuries is the privilege to have such a nice facility and a beautiful pool to keep us in shape and manage our stress.”

Vierra is a workout veteran, having exercised for close to 20 years in the school’s swimming pool. She noted that over those years, her increased accessibility to information from online sites and forums has made planning out her workouts easier. Many of her 2,400 to 2,500-yard swim sets are inspired by workouts she has seen on the internet.

One of Vierra’s and Obenour’s past swim workouts consists of a 200-yard warm-up, progressing to a ladder 1,000-yard swim (swimming paces alternate between being faster and slower), followed by a roughly 400-yard pull and 800-yard kick for 45 to 50 minutes.

Outside of the pool, Vierra also exercises by walking her dog in the morning. She notes that, along with swimming, she used to weight train at the Courtside gym’s San Jose Campus. 

However, balancing her workout schedule with her seventh-grade son’s schedule at Redwood Middle and his after-school sports has been challenging. Vierra has shifted from lifting weights at Courtside to weight training at home with small, easily accessible weights like dumbbells. 

From weight training at home to swimming with Marks and Obenour, Vierra is passionate about maintaining her fitness — all while enjoying the facilities available to her at school.

“We only swim at the school,” Vierra said. “For teachers to have access to a swimming pool, especially because many affordable gyms don’t have pools, we don’t take it for granted. It’s one of those things that, if we weren’t able to use the pool for self-care, it would detract from our job on this campus.”

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