Never too late

Millie Stefani

Photo By Larry Dalton

When you go into the McClellan California Family Fitness facility on a Monday or Wednesday, don’t be frightened if you see people dodging and rolling behind objects or bolting briskly toward the door. Everyone there knows when it’s abs or quick-fit time, but what you might be surprised to see is whom all these people are running from. Millie Stefani, a personal trainer who’s 66 and one of the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, walks into the room each Monday and Wednesday to greet everybody energetically. This deceptively nice, matronly person will talk to you, ask you about the wife and kids, and then convince you to come to her class, all the while helping you into a “no sweat” attitude. She’ll walk over to her CD player and turn on the techno-dance mix. That’s probably when you’ll realize that, charming as she may be, it is a workout class. Then comes the sweating and the panting, but for some reason, once it’s started, it’s near impossible not to like her class. Stefani really cares about people doing the exercises right and, of course, with a smile.

How did you first get into physical fitness?

I first got into physical-fitness classes after my daughter was born, so that I could get back to the weight that I was at before the pregnancy. I have been in classes ever since.

Where have you taught?

My husband was in the Air Force, so I traveled a lot with him. I’ve been in classes everywhere from Germany to Italy to here in Sacramento. I’ve been at McClellan since 1978, though. When the base was shut down and California Family Fitness moved in, I stayed there and signed on as a personal trainer. I’ve been working with them ever since.

Have you ever competed professionally?

I competed in a bodybuilding competition in 1981, but it was just for the sport.

Has anyone ever tried to show you up when you were giving them personal training?

One time, I was doing a leg workout with this real big young guy. I was showing him how to use the machine with 200 pounds. So he went to 250, and I went to 300, and he did the same. I finally went to 350, and he said, “I should just go home before you embarrass me more Millie!”

What exercises do you normally do to keep your legs in shape?

I do one hour straight of heavyweight leg presses every Friday.

I’ve seen your abs classes, and I’d like to know how it feels to make grown men cry.

[Laughing.] I like people to feel the workout. I’ve been teaching classes for the better part of 35 years now, and I’ve learned to be very efficient.

What’s your key to making a workout enjoyable?

Keeping people positive and motivated during the workout is a big part of it. Also, the music helps.

In your long fitness career, what are some of the things you’re most proud of?

There are many moments in my career that made me very happy, but I have three in particular.

An 80-year-old man who had been in the Air Force came to me because he had an amputated leg. He loved to play golf but couldn’t balance with his prosthetic. I set up a special program and worked with him for a while. After he left, he sent me a letter of thanks because he finally won a game.

Another lady that I’ve worked with had an open-heart surgery and four touch-up operations on top of that. After that, she needed a walker to move around. I helped her to build her leg muscles, and one day I told her to try walking without it. She was scared at first, but then she tried it and hasn’t used that walker since.

The lady that I’m working with right now is a friend of mine who has gone to the gym for a few years. She had pneumonia and a stroke. I’ve been going to see her for free every Saturday, and she’s scheduled to be able to come back to the gym this month.

These people all make me very happy. It is better to give than to receive, and I just like to help people to feel good.

What advice would you give to people thinking about getting into shape?

Keep moving and remember that anyone can do it. Age is not a factor in getting fit. My motto is that it’s never too late.