Sometimes it's difficult to stay active and motivated during the winter with its uncomfortable temperatures and snow-laden walkways. However, even the simplest physical movements and staying connected to friends are important factors in chasing away the seasonal blues and blahs. Staying active can prolong life and lessen the effects, costs and risks of chronic illness.
"Aging happens to everybody," says Barnesville retiree Emery Stewart. "It's okay to go slowly. If you don't finish, it give you something to do tomorrow." Stewart was a French language and literature teacher in St. Clairsville for 35 years and was recruited by Ohio University to teach there as well for 26 of those years. He's taken countless numbers of students to Europe and to cities around the United States to study history and culture.
A few years ago he made the decision to leave teaching, but he has channeled his energy into other areas, mainly community-oriented. He quotes Rose Kennedy, "From those who are given much, much is expected" and notes that he's found it easier to give back since retiring. Last year his work as a deacon with his church (United Presbyterian,) as a volunteer with Barnesville Hospital, meals on wheels and St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry and as a board member for the Belmont County Historical Society earned him the Barnesville Chamber of Commerce 2011 "Citizen of the Year" award.
Martha Perkins, left, of Barnesville, walks for exercise. In October 2011 she won the gold medal for age 70 and above at the annual Barkcamp Race for cancer. Martha is crossing the finish line with her grand daughter Jennifer Pittman, center, and daughter-in-law Cathy Perkins, right.
Experts say that volunteering is an excellent way for seniors to experience and learn new things, meet new people and even improve brain function. A study at Johns Hopkins University recently found that seniors involved in a youth mentoring program actually changed brain patterns and improved cognitive abilities in parts of the brain that control planning and organizing. Giving time to a cause or an agency that has meaning is a way to connect with like-minded people and help the organization, as well as giving life a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Even homebound seniors can volunteer to make phone calls, do paperwork or do work on a computer.
Martha Perkins of Barnesville says that life as a farm wife was active but kept her in one place. "I was only 18 and a half when I married a farmer husband.
"We raised dairy then beef cattle, hogs and chickens. We had a garden for our food, and I canned vegetables and any fruit I could get my hands on." After her husband passed away, her sons suggested she move off the farm and into a smaller house in town.
She's not only active in her church, Bethesda United Methodist, singing in the choir and helping with church dinners, Perkins is involved at both the Bethesda and Barnesville senior centers, where she attends covered dish dinners, assists with bazaars and fundraisers, takes day trips and dinner excursions and plays chair volleyball. "We do a lot of laughing with that," she adds. "It's a lot of fun."
Perkins thinks staying fit has something to do with her energy, too.
She walks at a park in her neighborhood, finished her fifth year in the Barnesville 5K Pumpkin Walk and took the first place medal for age 70 and above at the Barkcamp cancer walk in October. She and a group of friends also bowl every Friday.
Staying sedentary is far riskier and detrimental to health than risks of light exercise. Studies indicate that lack of exercise decreases the body's effectiveness-loss of muscle tone and bone mass, decline in cardiovascular health, flexibility and digestive health. Beginning with just a few minutes each day someone can start lowering risks of heart disease, high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.
Avoiding exercise because of the possibility of falling is a bit misguided, research says. Starting slowly and simply will gradually build up muscles, coordination and enhance balance. As the body strengthens, exercise can actually reverse some of the affects of aging and the costs associated with chronic diseases, including medications and doctor visits.
Walking is one of the easiest and most effective senior exercises. Make plans to walk at the mall with a friend once or twice a week. It's an ideal place to walk because it's climate controlled and there are benches throughout for resting. Some fitness centers, like the center at Ohio University Eastern, participate in the "Sliver Sneakers" program with Medicare, offering free programs and memberships. Check your Medicare plans and local fitness centers for details. Water aerobics and yoga are easy on joints and muscles but promote flexibility and muscle tone.
Once again, even homebound seniors can add activity to their days. Lifting small hand weights, dumbbells or cans of soup will at least add muscle tone, increase range of motion and improve circulation. There are exercise programs on television and on tape or DVD just for seniors, such as chair yoga or chair aerobics. Any movement on a regular basis is better than no movement.
Think it's too late to start something? Not so, say doctors and researchers. Retirement is a perfect time to rediscover old hobbies or take time to develop a new interest, like taking classes in ballroom dancing or a foreign language. Perkins says that she had never bowled until she turned 75. "I love being active. You meet people who are nice and friendly." She laughs, "My family says I'm never home."
Some libraries offer free basic computer courses, and all have available computers. Stewart spends about an hour each day on the computer and has 1000 Facebook friends-mostly past students and foreign exchange students-and has become extensively involved with historical and family genealogy. He adds that his doctor recently decreased his daily blood pressure medication from seven pills to one.
You, too, can start the New Year by improving mind, body and spirit. Talk to your doctor about possible physical activities and interests before beginning. Beat the blahs by catching up with friends, joining a club or a cause or walking around the mall or gym once a week. The benefits will begin to blossom by spring.
Valenti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.