RICHLAND -- Ermine Thomas arrived at her exercise class Wednesday carrying her water bottle in a handmade pastel-colored crochet sleeve, ready to work out.
She wasn't expecting her classmates to throw her a surprise birthday party.
But they wanted to honor the 90-year-old Richland woman who often is referred to as "inspirational." She celebrates her birthday today.
Every Monday and Wednesday, Thomas participates in a Better Bones and Balance class for seniors led by instructor Toya Perry at the Richland Community Center.
Perry designs workouts that can be modified for those with knee and hip replacements, osteoporosis and arthritis.
All of the woman in the class share a common goal: to stay active.
Thomas first joined the class in 2003, after moving to Richland from Walla Walla. Her husband died in 1996 and her family in the Tri-Cities wanted her to be closer to them.
This proved beneficial when Thomas was diagnosed with two forms of cancer in 2010. With the help of her family, she "came through OK" and eventually returned to her exercise routine, said Thomas, who has three children, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
"As we age, we become more sedentary," she said, which is why she makes exercising a part of her weekly routine.
She also said she eats whole grains, vegetables and a diet low in fat and cholesterol.
Thomas knows what an accomplishment turning 90 is. She remembers when she was a child, her great-grandfather died at age 75, and she "thought that was so old."
Today, "just because you're a senior citizen doesn't mean you stop," said Robin Morris of Richland. Life expectancy has increased and instead of spending "10 years flat on your back," said Sharon Koehling of Richland, people can choose to be active and live life to the fullest.
Thomas' daughter, Jeanne Fischer of Richland, said her mom stays fit because she "doesn't want to rely on anybody" and wants to continue to serve others.
Thomas volunteers in the genealogical center at her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and plays cards with friends.
"She is very social," said granddaughter Jenny Briones of West Richland.
That's an added bonus of the class -- the camaraderie and friendship it provides participants, Perry said.
On days when the women are not in Perry's class, many of them walk together.
And even when they don't feel like exercising, they still come to class to "see all the faces," said Koehling.
-- Eleanor Cummins: 509-585-7207; firstname.lastname@example.org