Knowledge of her Rodgers Seniors' Center students' needs and physical obstacles allows René Burton to give them the individual attention that can make a big difference in their well-being.
But understanding her senior participants doesn't mean Burton won't push them to do their best. Having taken a breather during the holidays in December, Burton, a 78-year-old senior fitness guru from Huntington Beach, wasn't about to let her class slack off during their first session of 2014.
"René is a taskmaster and she takes no prisoners," said Stella Gerk.
Gerk, 66, of Huntington Beach, has been taking Burton's aerobics class for five years. To avoid going into a slump after suffering a personal loss a few years ago, she said her neighbors dragged her to the senior center to join.
"What happened was that it helped the grieving process with me, and it helped to get that physical anxiety out of me," she said. "And after about a year, I saw that I was becoming fitter and stronger."
Gerk, a breast cancer survivor, added that Burton's health tips helped her recovery.
"I just felt the total benefits: physical, mental, psychological and spiritual, if you want to add the fourth dimension," she said. "For at least two years, it was the only thing that helped.... And I just kept with it, because of René."
Burton has taught low-impact aerobics at the Rodgers Seniors' Center on Mondays and Wednesdays for the past 12 years. She is also an instructor with the Irvine Valley College Emeritus Program, teaching aerobics in Lake Forest and Newport Coast.
She compiled some of her teaching skills into a book in 2011 called "It's Never Too Late," a guide for the elderly on how to eat healthier, exercise properly and build up confidence.
"My goal is to keep people healthy," Burton said. "We want to stay healthy. I want to stay healthy, and I'm working on it."
During a recent class, about 20 students gathered in a large room on the northwest side of the facility, clutching the exercise equipment they would be using for the next hour.
When Burton felt that no one else would be arriving, she started the session with a 30-minute warm-up.
A fast-paced cover of McFadden and Whitehead's "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" played in the background as the instructor and her students went through a series of standing marches, various stretches and high kicks.
"See that? Those are important for balance," said Burton about the kicking. She, too, was kicking as high as she could and continuing the exercises alongside her peers as she worked up a sweat.
Once everyone was warmed up, Burton told her students to grab their resistance bands to do some strengthening exercises.
As the fitness guru yelled out different stretching positions, she made her way through the room, making sure each person wasn't pushing too hard.
"One thing we don't want to have is an injury," Burton said.
While taking a short break, Burton said that she knows each of her students' capabilities and limitations. She pointed out one woman who visits the senior center each week despite being on oxygen.
Another student, 72-year-old Wilma Scholten, has been in Burton's program for over a year. Burton said she has watched Scholten transform from not being able to move very much to now being able to perform floor exercises.
In 2006, Scholten was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a spinal cord condition that has left her extremely weak from the neck down.
Wanting to become active again and having known about the class for some time, Scholten got around to registering for the aerobics class and was assisted by Burton since day one.
"I was weak and she put a chair in front of me," the student said. "At first, I used the chair, and then little by little I got more into it."
Gerk and Scholten said they are thankful to have Burton as a teacher because she understands older people.
"I swear, if I had gone into a class with a young thing out there in front, they wouldn't take notice of us," Gerk said. "René takes notice of us. She knows the individual needs, and if she thinks you can do more, she'll push you."