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Retirees on the Move

Investing in future fitness with old-school exercises

By Janet Rivera Mednik

From a weight that shakes, to Latin-flavored dance moves, to jogs taken while wearing a sauna suit, there is no shortage of exercise trends that capture the attention and money of weight- and health-conscious Americans. Sure, today’s exercises promise to melt pounds, tighten tummies, and shrink waists. But for better strength, flexibility, balance, and mental agility, many NEA-Retired members prefer more traditional exercises that have withstood the test of time.

Yoga—A Mind and Body Connection

Daria Plummer, a retired elementary school teacher and former president of the Connecticut Education Association, enjoys various exercises but has a major regret about yoga: She wishes she had started 30 years ago.

“I believe it is crucial that we quiet our minds and surrender ourselves to peace for an hour a day,” says Plummer, who began taking yoga at her local community center after leaving the classroom four years ago. “When you’re a teacher, it feels like you never have a moment to yourself. You feel like you’re always responding to parents, administrators, or students, so it’s hard to relax. I love what yoga has done for me, but I wish I had started it when I was younger.”

Yoga, which began in ancient India, uses physical poses (called “asanas”), breathing exercises and relaxation techniques that strengthen the body, mind, and spirit.

Jaki Nett (pictured left), a renowned yoga instructor from California’s Napa Valley, says she was fortunate to have discovered yoga almost four decades ago. The 69-year-old practices yoga five days a week and has the flexibility and strength of people half her age. However, she stresses that men and women who come to yoga at a more advanced age can still yield benefits, including increased flexibility, lower blood pressure, relief from back pain and arthritis, and increased social interaction. Nett points out in her book, “A Crack in the Mask,” that yoga can also strengthen weakened pelvic muscles, which can lead to incontinence.

Plummer, who is 67, practices yoga three times a week. She says it took her about six months to gain increased flexibility, stronger bones, and a greater peace of mind.

“Practicing yoga is like being on an amazing, individual journey,” she says. “Aside from the physical and mental benefits that I have gained, I also appre-ciate that it has given me confidence to branch out and try other exercises, including Pilates and senior aerobics. I hope people realize that it’s never too late to learn something new.”

By increasing her flexibility and balance today, Plummer is securing her quality of life for years to come.

Says Nett: “There is security in movement. By focusing on balance and flexibility, you’ll be more likely to continue to tie your own shoes and hold your cup of coffee. You’ll be able to prevent a fall, and if you do fall, you’ll be more likely to be able to get up.”

For those wishing to give yoga a try, Nett and Plummer agree that finding a well-trained instructor is imperative. A good instructor should ask students about physical limitations, correct technique, be supportive, and help students adapt their yoga practice to the needs of their own bodies. “It is very important that a person has a realistic view of the health of their body and how yoga can help,” Nett says. “Listen to your body and be gentle with it. Tai chi and gentle yoga are good options for people who may not be strong or who don’t have the best balance or flexibility. The most important thing is to move the best you can. You don’t want to do anything to exacerbate health issues.”

There are many forms of yoga. Hatha is gentle and meditative, with an emphasis on breathing. Ashtanga is more vigorous, involving a progressive series of postures linked to the breath. In Bikram, participants move through postures during 90-minute classes held in rooms heated to 105 degrees.

Whether you are able to move as you wish or have physical limitations, there is a yoga routine designed for you.

Another Connecticut retired teacher, Rhea Klein, found that a blend of yoga and Pilates (called Group Centergy) works for her. Centergy “incorporates yoga poses and Pilates exercises, but includes music and dance moves,” Klein says. Best of all, she finds that she has gained balance, core stability, posture, and strength since starting the yoga hybrid about four years ago.

Tai Chi—Meditation in Motion

Someone once said that if yoga helps you find your center, then tai chi helps you figure out what to do with it.

If you’ve ever seen a group of people—often they’re seniors—practicing a series of precise, gentle movements in an open space, they were probably doing tai chi. “It looks like poetry in motion,” says Jacqui Shumway, co-director of the Tai Chi Project in Denver. “But it’s a form of exercise that really benefits the mind and body, together, in so many ways.”

Experts from the Mayo Clinic and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) affirm that tai chi helps reduce stress and anxiety, while increasing flexibility and balance. NIH research shows that tai chi reduces blood pressure and increases balance and mobility in patients with Parkinson’s disease. NIH studies also show that tai chi may benefit those with other ailments, including heart failure, osteoarthritis, and fibromyalgia.

Sheri Lockhart (left), a retired kindergarten teacher, heard about the health benefits of tai chi and was intrigued. Three years ago, she took an introductory class offered by the Tai Chi Project. Now she begins almost every day with tai chi.

“It’s a little difficult to remember all the steps, but it’s designed to challenge both the mind and the body. I just get so much out of it, especially in the morning,” Lockhart says. “My balance is better, and I have learned to breathe in a more healthful way. Also, I find that tai chi helps me quiet my mind, which helps relieve stress.”

With testimonies like that, it is little wonder that the discipline—which developed in ancient China—continues to grow in popularity. “It’s about living younger, longer,” Shumway says. Too often, people wait until they face a medical crisis before tending to their mental and physical health, she says. But, “If you discovered your faucet was dripping, would you first turn off the tap, or get a mop?”

Advocates of tai chi believe that learning and practicing sequential movements, accompanied by deep breathing, helps keep the mind sharp and the body in balance. Because tai chi is low impact, with minimal stress on muscles and joints, it is ideal for just about anyone.

Moreover, the right tai chi class can be both social and fun. “It’s like a slow-motion flash mob!” Shumway says.

Move Well and Get Strong with Kettlebells

It’s hard to believe that a 58-year-old, first-grade teacher would embrace the same form of exercise that made Soviet soldiers strong, but it’s true. Two years ago, Jeanette Hurley (pictured right) of Seattle discovered what Russians have known since the 1700s: Kettlebells, heavy cast-iron weights with a handle, are key to developing strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.

Hurley says a kettlebell workout is different from any other form of exercise she has ever tried. She works out with kettlebells three to five times a week in her home or at Kettlebility, a Seattle studio. “It has made me strong and given me a sense of confidence,” Hurley says. “I’m addicted to using the kettlebells because I love the way I feel.”

“Strength is key,” explains Andrea U-Shi Chang, a trainer and owner of Kettlebility. “With strength comes flexibility, range of motion, balance, and mobility. Best of all, you see fast results because it is an aerobic exercise that engages the whole body and works several muscles simulta-neously.” A big difference between kettlebells and tradi-tional weights is the handle, which allows kettlebell exercises to provide a unique cardio-vascular and strength workout, resulting in long, lean muscles.

It’s a method that U-Shi Chang has seen benefit everyone from high-end athletes (such as players on the Seattle Seahawks football team) to a 70-year-old grandmother. “Kettlebell training discloses gaps in personal strength and helps you address them in a way that is right for the individual,” says U-Shi Chang. “Some people need to be strong for their jobs, others just want to get in and out of a car comfortably or make sure they could get up off the floor if they were to fall.”

The television commercial line “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” may have evolved into a national punchline, but it’s no joke if it happens to you. Perhaps that’s why people of all ages are drawn to exercise that strengthens the body’s muscles and bones, while burning calories quickly.

Rapidly growing in popularity since being introduced in the United States in the 1980s, kettlebells are everywhere—gyms, sporting goods stores, and on the Internet. The problem is, as with any exercise, form is important. U-Shi Chang urges beginners to take a class with certified instructors. “The right instructor will keep you safe and teach proper form. Once you know the correct form, it’s hard to get hurt.”

A good instructor will also encourage clients to stay motivated and to keep raising the bar on personal goals, Hurley says. “Everyone needs gentle encouragement at times, and that’s what I get at the studio. I always leave the kettlebell studio with a sense of success and a good laugh.”

Walking, the Oldest Exercise of All

Not quite ready for yoga’s downward dog, tai chi’s repulse monkey or a double kettlebell iron cross? Consider the oldest exercise of all: walking, but with a modern twist.

Retired elementary school teacher Sally Ross,
front row, center, enjoys walking trails in her
home state of Oregon and throughout the world.
“Volkswalking” (also known as “volksmarching”) encourages people to traverse 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in cities, forests, mountains, and along coastlines around the globe. Participants like Sally Ross—a 76-year-old retired teacher from Oregon—gain a careful log of their walks (by distance and/or event), form friendships based on a strong common interest, and reap a host of fitness benefits, including a sharpened brain and a stronger heart.

“I think volkswalking is the best-kept secret around,” says Ross, who serves as president of two volkswalk chapters in Oregon, “It’s affordable, social, and you get to see some of the most beautiful, unique places in the world. It offers something you can’t get from walking around a shopping mall. I love to watch birds, identify flowers, and take in the sounds of nature.”

Ross, who left the classroom in 1991, has followed volkswalk paths in every state, every province in Canada, and in 10 other countries. Her favorite trail is along the Columbia River Gorge at Mount Hood in Oregon. “I’ve been all over the world, but the walks along the gorge, with the beautiful waterfalls and pretty wildflowers, are my favorite,” says the second-generation Oregonian.

Volkswalks are categorized between yearlong and weekend events. Walking paths are selected for either their beauty, historic aspect, or other special feature. Participants enjoy a measured trail, a map, directions, and the opportunity to log their achievements, either by event or miles. Yearlong events are designed for participants to walk at their convenience; weekend events are set up by local clubs a few times a year and usually last one to two days.

Ross, who usually does two volkswalks a week, has racked up more than 2,230 event credits since discovering the sport in the late 1980s. But she stresses that the walks are not competitive. “You certainly don’t have to keep track of your miles or your events,” she says. “We have families with strollers walking and others who come out every once in a while. There are also others who go on road trips together to do volkswalks. There’s something for everyone.”

Whether you want to trek up a steep mountain or enjoy a leisurely walk with your dog, chances are there’s a volkswalk for you. Volkswalks are available in every state, and are free to the public. Logbooks and event/distance incentives are available for nominal fees. To take the first step toward becoming a volkswalker, check out the website of the American Volkssport Association.

Get Moving

New exercise routines and products can be fun and even beneficial, but there is a reason that certain fitness routines have endured. They work, even if they may not lend themselves to a late-night infomercial. You should check with your physician before starting any exercise program, but yoga, tai chi, kettlebells, and volkswalking are just a few forms of exercise that can be modified so people of any age or who have limited mobility can participate.


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