Members of The Heartbeats working out and socializing on a recent Monday morning were, from left: Joe Chalmers, Nancy Nance, Opal Ellis, Don Tevault, Ginger Tevault, Jim Coffin, Sam Coley, Don Shell, Jim Holladay, Gary Johnson, Joann Hipshire, Marshall Ellis, Oscar Fowler, Richard Ashworth and Rita Holladay; sitting, Mike Garl; and kneeling, Floyd Hipshire

It’s been seven years since Richard Ashworth had what could’ve been a fatal heart attack. But here he is – still in the Parkwest Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation program at Fort Sanders West.

He has long since “graduated” from the 12-week, 36-session program, but he’s far from finished. Fate and heart disease might have brought him here, but friends – and maintaining a healthy heart – are what keeps him coming back.

That’s why, in 2012, he started The Heartbeats, a diverse group of roughly 20 like-minded, mostly senior-somethings (mid 50s to 98!) who believe fitness and friendship are good for the heart.

While a few work out as much as five days a week, most of The Heartbeats can be found every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at the 8 a.m. rehab session. They’re the ones who you’ll see smiling as they talk woodworking projects, swap books or share recipes as they move between exercise machines.

You can also find them every other Monday at various restaurants around Knoxville as they take their social club on the road for breakfast or lunch. Many come to the restaurant straight from their workouts, still wearing sneakers. They’ve even held a group picnic, and a Christmas luncheon drew 23.

“It’s a great way to start the day,” said Ashworth, a retired salesman whose gift of gab has kept the group going even as members have come and gone over the years. “None of us knew each other prior to starting, but now we’re 15 to 20 of the greatest friends that you could ever want. This is not exclusive – anyone who wants can join. But those of us who want to come and break bread every other week, we have fun. As I say when I walk into a restaurant, ‘This is 15 senior citizens and we tip well’ and we get great service.”

“They’ve had bypasses, stents, valve repairs, a lot of them have diabetes,” said Amy Dale, a registered nurse and case manager at Parkwest Cardiac Rehab. “They’ve gone through a lot of tragedies in their lives, losing spouses, losing children, and they’ve supported each other all through that. They keep up with one another. If somebody doesn’t show up, they’ll check on them.… It’s really sweet to see how they have bonded. They all have a common ground of heart disease, but it’s the friendships that go so much deeper. They come from different backgrounds, different walks of life. Each one of them has a different story and so much to add.”

Ashworth also recognizes the added value of the Parkwest Cardiac Rehab staff of exercise physiologists, clinical dietitian, respiratory therapist, registered nurses and physicians. “Parkwest’s staff has been wonderful to us,” he said. “You’ve got excellent care from the front desk, from the nurses, from the doctors … it’s wonderful. It’s great! You wouldn’t have that at other places.

“We could go anywhere and do anything exercise-wise separately, but we would not be as dedicated as we are now. As I’ve told many folks, the rehab side is just the beginning. The classroom is great, but the journey begins when you start maintenance – and stay in maintenance. It’s got to be if you want to live.”