'We just all love each other': Pandemic workouts in Toronto park spur new friendships

·2 min read

At first, Vijaya Atluri watched the group from a distance. She kept noticing the same women working out — and having fun — during her walks in Toronto's High Park.

She eventually worked up the courage and asked the group if she could join.

"I didn't know anyone in the group," she said. "I'm so grateful. They are so open."

Atluri now sees the group, her brand new friends, three times a week. She's become a fixture, bringing baked goods, such as energy bars and cupcakes. The gaggle of women, ages 59 to 83, meet religiously — in snow, wind, rain or sun, even on Christmas Day.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

Evelyn Ennor started the free workouts when her gym closed earlier in the pandemic. It has brought structure and routine to her life and a much-needed sense of balance when everything around her seems "off-balance."

"This has become more my local friendship support group," she said. "It just gathered moss as it went along."

Workout group a 'lifesaver'

Ennor leads most of the workouts, all done physically distanced. The moves aren't overly complex. A favourite includes pounding on the chest and howling like Tarzan.

But the workouts have helped the group's members get outside and tackle pandemic stress. Many are single and live alone.

Submitted by Hilde Avila
Submitted by Hilde Avila

"It made such a difference in my life," said Joan Landry, who tries not to miss a workout.

It has helped her feel less lonely and isolated. If she doesn't show up to class, she said another member will call to see if she is all right. They find ways to celebrate anything, from dressing up for Halloween to marking birthdays.

"We just all love each other and we help each other and we want the best for each other," she said.

Haydn Watters/CBC
Haydn Watters/CBC

Hilde Avila credits the group with keeping her alive. In addition to the pandemic, she has been dealing with a personal tragedy and thanks the group for supporting her through it.

"This place became the lifesaver," she said. "It was tears and laughter and sorrow and joy."

The group hopes to keep going all winter long. At a recent workout, the weather kept changing from rain to snow and back, leaving the women drenched.

Ousama Farag/CBC
Ousama Farag/CBC

They tried to make the best of it, shivering through so they could be together at a distance. Atluri has knitted everyone matching winter toques to keep them warm.

"A number of us are warm weather types," Ennor said. "[But] we're going to put the long underwear on and the warm socks and the warm coats and we're going to embrace the Canadian winter."

Have you made a new COVID friend?

Perhaps it's a grocery store clerk or a neighbour you didn't know. Or maybe you met someone in the park or the line to get a COVID-19 test. Email haydn.watters@cbc.caabout your new pandemic friendship.