SOUTH JORDAN — Five years ago, exercise helped Debbie Behle break free from a debilitating depression brought on by the death of her oldest son.

Three years ago, it cured her of osteoporosis.

"I always believed so much in the value of exercise," said Behle, a 53-year-old mother of five. "Not necessarily for the shape of my body, but for my head. I was able to sleep. I was able to deal with things."

Always active, Behle didn't see the need to join a gym or workout every day until she suffered the kind of heartbreak that never really heals.

It was the afternoon of July 5, and a hysterical phone call from her daughter-in-law informed Behle that her 27-year-old son wasn't breathing.

"They knew him because he drove the ambulance in Tooele," Behle said of rescue crews. "They worked on him for two hours."

Jason Behle died in his sleep, suffocated by sleep apnea and enlarged tonsils. In the days and weeks that followed his funeral, his mother found herself in an unfamiliar place. She was swimming in sadness, unable to do simple things like sleep. She turned to antidepressants to get through the long, lonely days, and she relied on sleeping pills to bring her peace in the dark nights.

"You know how you feel like you just want to lock yourself in your room? Well, I did that for a while," she said. "And then I thought, I have four other kids, I have grandkids, I have a husband."

To stay in the pain that was consuming her was to relinquish her own life, a life she loved.

"After he died, I was pretty messed up," she said. "Then I realized I would miss out on life if I chose to keep doing that … I usually allow myself one day a year, usually his death day, when I am a wreck."

Every other day, she wakes up at 5 a.m. and heads to a park in South Jordan where another son, Brad Behle, runs her through exercises.

She is a member of a women's only fitness class designed by him as part of his year-old business, Wasatch Adventure Boot Camp. Brad Behle is her second-oldest son and has always been involved in fitness and personal training.

About nine months after Jason Behle's death, his mother decided there was no pill that would make her feel better. She'd lost her son. She might never get over that loss. But she wasn't going to let her grief steal her life, as well. So she stopped taking her prescriptions and joined a gym. She began taking vitamins instead, and then she asked Brad Behle for help in trying to sweat her way out of the sadness.

"It was kind of my renewal," she said. "I decided I needed to deal with things."

And deal with them she did. She worked out, and she and her family organized fundraising events, including two motorcycle charity rides, in Jason Behle's honor.

"I was doing pretty good," she said. And then she got busy, and exercise became less of a priority.

"I went to the doctor and had a bone scan, and they told me I had osteoporosis," she said. Along with the diagnosis, doctors handed her a prescription.

She turned to her son Brad once again.

"He started working with me on weight-bearing exercises like bands and kettlebells," she said. "I honestly did that religiously."

A year later, she returned to the doctor's office for a bone scan — without ever filling that first prescription.

"He said, 'Whatever you're doing, keep it up,' " she said with a little giggle. "I was fine. He said I was within normal ranges … It just re-emphasized to me how important exercise was."

Then Brad Behle was in a serious car accident that badly injured his back. He had two herniated discs and tried everything short of surgery to relieve the pain. When doctors talked to the 30-year-old about what surgery might mean, he found it a very untenable solution.

"They said the chance of improvement was only 50 percent," he said. "It didn't make sense to go through surgery for a 50 percent chance."

Always a gym rat, he began researching exercise options. He found kettlebells — a weight system that gained fame when the actors in "300" used them to get into shape.

"My back problems are seriously gone," he said. "I haven't missed a week of working out in 12 years, and I knew the benefits."

So he decided to dedicate himself to giving that gift to other people. At a training class for kettlebells, he learned of a company called Adventure Bootcamps. There wasn't anything like it in Utah, so a year ago in October, he decided to start bringing a little "adventure" to the lives of Utahns longing for something different in their fitness regimen.

"My biggest thing is that I want people to know that fitness is fun," said Brad Behle, who teaches classes in kettlebells and general fitness (Wasatchbootcamp.com). "I'd go to the gym, but the workouts weren't functional. Everything I do, I have to be in shape to do it. You don't have to go to the gym and be slaving away."

He wants to give those who are struggling with fitness goals, and sometimes just the weight and heaviness of life, some support.

"I love the adventure aspect," he said. "I want my clients to be in shape to enjoy whatever adventure they want. I want them to get everything they can get out of life. Dropping the pants size, that's the icing on the cake. Being able to do everything you want, being healthy, that's the real goal."

His mother is one of his most dedicated students — missing only a handful of classes when she was out of town.

"I'll never have that 20-year-old body," she laughed. "I'm over that. I want to be in the best physical shape I can be so I can do what I want. My bones, my mental outlook, that's it for me … I don't want to go to a movie because it's the only thing I can do … It's almost like I can't NOT go. I think it's because now I really do recognize the value of it in my entire life."

e-mail: adonaldson@desnews.com