BY DEBRA KEEFER RAMAGE
In 2008, at age 55, I lived in a small town in England. I had recently been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and my blood glucose and cholesterol numbers were high too, though not demanding treatment. I started an exercise regimen at a private gym in an old stocking mill about a mile from our house in Hinckley (UK). For over two years, until the lingering effects of the global banking crisis finally took my job and led to my return to the States, I religiously worked out. I often walked to and from the gym as a warmup, and I felt really good most of the time, at least until the stress piled on from my life’s chaos. Back here in the Twin Cities in December 2011, I struggled to find stability—looking for a job in my field, fixing up the trashed condo that was the only thing I could afford with no stable income, navigating the hellscape of U.S. health care—so I never made good on my “resolution” to get back into a routine of physical fitness. I do some sporadic stuff—walking, yoga, exercise, even take a class here and there. Occasionally I get a long and exhausting walk as a side effect of political activism and I’m grateful I can still do that—sometimes. But I know that I need routine, habit, persistence. When I was tasked with producing this new series on aging gracefully, I felt that the first topic had to be the things that express gracefulness—our bodies. Here are some tips gleaned from my searches, struggles and successes, as well as some anecdotes from friends on their healthy body routines. And by the way, if you are still under 60, this is for you as well. It’s never too early to start building a graceful aging program.
Silver Sneakers (SS) is a program you can join as part of a Medicare Advantage plan. It doesn’t cost anything extra beyond the premiums you pay for the plan. You can take your SS member card to the Y, Anytime, or many other fitness studios and get a free membership there. These clubs offer exclusive SS classes, but you can also use all their member resources. Silver Sneakers classes cover a variety of intensities. The “classic” class is a mix of stretches and body-weight resistance combined with non-impact aerobics, all performed with a chair and other simple aids. Nokomis Healthy Seniors also provides free SS classes that you can take even if you’re not on a Medicare plan that includes it. Check out both the SS home page for details at https://www.silversneakers.com/learn/classes and the NHS page at https://www.nokomishealthyseniors.org/.
If you’re more of a purist, or maybe already familiar with yoga, simple yoga practice, alone, with friends, or in a class may be your preferred route. Yoga comes in a variety of flavors nowadays. Some may be better suited to our youthful comrades—hot yoga, Bikram (a proprietary form of hot yoga), Iyengar, core yoga, power yoga—while there are also new yoga adaptations specifically for seniors, older beginners, or people with physical challenges. These include chair yoga, water yoga and restorative yoga, all of which can be found in Silver Sneakers classes, at the Y, and in low-cost community education at parks and schools. Also, some varieties of yoga are inherently more gentle, such as kripalu, vinyasa flow, kundalini, and ashtanga. Another very popular exercise style is Pilates. This has some historical borrowings from yoga, and also from dance training, and was actually invented as a restorative practice for ballet dancers with injuries, so it’s easily adaptable for any body type or condition. There are so many resources—TV shows, online videos, magazines, etc.—to facilitate creating your own yoga or Pilates practice at little or no cost, that this is a viable option. However, some styles include a big breath-control component, and some postures are contraindicated for those with high blood pressure, so if you have COPD, HBP or related conditions, consult your doctor first. If you’re a novice or have any of these conditions, it’s probably not a great idea to exercise completely alone; it might be more advisable—and safe—to at least find a buddy to practice with. The Twin Cities is awash with both yoga and Pilates studios, group trainers, personal trainers and clubs. I promise if you Google either one, you’ll be inundated with possibilities.
Another way to go is to nourish the body passively. Some popular ways to do this are massage and other bodywork, acupuncture, and passive stretching. For massage, the resources are many and all you need to do is a computer search or ask a friend. For acupuncture, you can go with a sole practitioner, or you can check out community acupuncture, a network of very low-cost, low-frills, but credentialed practitioners in shared spaces. There is a very good one at the corner of Cedar and 38th Street. Passive stretching is relatively new to the area. Check out StretchLabs, which has several franchises in Minnesota, including one on West Lake Street near Bde Maka Ska.
I surveyed a few randomly-chosen, over-60 friends of mine to see what they do. I got more responses than I have room for in this piece, but here are a few samples:
• Dan, age 66, is a retired steelworker, single, with no kids. Like many retirees he travels quite a bit, including yearly long trips to Costa Rica, where he hikes and bikes, but when home he runs 4.5 miles every morning at about a 12-minute mile pace, and also walks his dog every afternoon for a mile or more.
• Jennifer, age 72, doesn’t have a formal “exercise routine,” doesn’t like to “work out” or take classes. She thinks physical work or play is easier and more effective if it’s just part of one’s everyday life, walking to the co-op, parking farther away when driving, etc. She has always liked to do both housework and yard work and in winter shovels snow and does projects in the house such as painting the kitchen. She does enjoy going for walks with friends but wouldn’t make it a constant practice.
• Elaine, mid-70s, is another who enjoys snow-shoveling and gardening. She also exercises at home using routines she has learned over the years from physical therapy, personal trainers and classes. Unlike Jennifer, who finds exercise machines boring, Elaine (like me) finds them meditative and inspiring. “For a while I was really hooked on exercise [at the YW]—not to get stronger, not to get better looking, not for any reason except that I liked going to the gym. It had become my … meditation time … I especially liked walking the track at sunset because the light in the gym is so spectacular at that hour.” Although not her express purpose, she has noticed that exercise makes her feel better, controls pain and prevents falls.
• KC, looking younger than her 80 years, is a widow who had a long and impressive career as a healthcare administrator. She does a three-day-per-week Fit and Tone class, a well-paced class for active elders, at the YW, which for her is a social occasion as well as a workout. She also walks her little dog three times a day, and tracks her steps, aiming for 6,000 or more daily.
• Carolyn, a little past 80, single, with grown kids and grandkids, wrote an essay. Here’s an excerpt:
“In my 40s I put together a program of stretches, weight-lifting, aerobic walking—all activities I could do with reasonable consistency and not much cost, along with an occasional yoga class, tai chi, etc. My favorite part of all this was the longer weekend walk that I started 20 years ago. About seven years ago, scoliosis of the spine, breast cancer, semi-blocked arteries, and a ‘shower of small strokes’ each took its little bite out of my stamina, my flexibility, my stability, my determination. My exercise program took a number of hits. Let’s just say it has not disappeared but has shrunk. The long weekend walks are gone, to my immense disappointment.”
• Jesse, age 90, is a widower with three adult children who lives at the former Augustana senior care housing complex near downtown. Jesse’s career was journalism, and he is now a blogger. He works out 20 minutes four days a week in the fitness studio, divided between a gentle walk on the treadmill and three strength-building machines. He also tracks steps and gets in about a mile of indoor walking daily. Read his blog at http://augustanacare.org/get-know-us/blog/.
• Also check out my own blogpost about my exercise routine in the UK at https://deboramaskitchen.blogspot.com/2008/05/workouts-work-play-and-music.html.