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Movers & Shakers


Jewell Biggs (left) says good music is made for dancing. Photo by Mikki Harris

Keeping fit doesn’t always mean grueling workouts in the gym. These members say the key is finding an activity you love.

By Roger M. Williams

When it comes to reasons to avoid physical activity, retired teacher Martha Pratt has a more valid one than most of us. “I have arthritis in the knees, feet, and hands, largely from having done a tremendous amount of hiking,” says the former kindergarten and first-grade teacher. But instead of resigning herself to a spot on the couch, Pratt has sought out activities she can do in the one place where exercising doesn’t bring on pain—in the pool.

While there are, of course, legitimate reasons for retirees to avoid certain activities, there are a good many more excuses, says Denise Foresman, a Gardner, Massachusetts, fitness specialist who has spoken at NEA-Retired conferences. “I’ve identified four basic ones: ‘I don’t have the time;’ ‘I can’t change my old habits;’ ‘I start and then get sidetracked;’ ‘I’ve got bad knees’ or a bad whatever.” Without numbering them five and six, Foresman adds two other common excuses: “I’m not sure it’s worth the effort” and “I don’t know where to start.”

She calls all such alibis “behavior blocks,” and says the blocks are seldom physical: “Ninety percent of the issues with weight and fitness are emotional and psychological.”

It may take some effort to figure out which activities are appealing enough to help you get past the “behavior blocks” that stand in your way. Give yourself a chance to experiment. Bring some friends along if you’re trying out a new activity—down the road, having a friend who is also involved can be a great motivator. Whatever physical activity you pursue, keep in mind that it should feel good.

“Forget the old adages like ‘no pain, no gain,’ Foresman advises. “You’re not in this for sweat or pain, just to increase your physical activity.”

Exercise need not mean darting around a tennis court or gritting your teeth through sets of reps with dumbbells. Lots of other physical activities are both beneficial and fun to do. And, according to both the health experts and your retired colleagues, the benefits go well beyond the physical. Here’s what a handful of notably upbeat former educators told This Active Life about the benefits of their active lives.

Physical Fitness

That is, as an end in itself. Numerous expressions come to mind: a sound mind in a sound body; get the blood moving; you feel so much better after exercising. They may all be tiresome clichés, but they’re also true. Pat Shaffer of Lancaster, California, a former fourth-grade teacher who bikes, hikes, skis, and does yoga, really enjoys “the exercise itself—as well as feeling myself getting stronger.”

Rehabilitation/Addressing Specific Needs

Martha Pratt found that aquatic exercise relieves her overwhelming arthritis pain. “In fact, it’s about all I can do for it,” she says. “Anything I try on land is uncomfortable.” She not only takes her own exercise in the pool, she now leads an Arthritis Foundation aquatics class in West Bath, Maine. Her students also “find that exercising in a warm therapy pool helps with range of motion and balance.” Adds Pratt with a chuckle, “You burn more calories in the water, too.” She swims laps before and after teaching her class, and one day on the weekend.

A Sense of Achievement


Pat Shaffer (front left) prepares to climb the cables at Half Dome in Yosemite National Park with her exercise buddy—her husband, Tom.

As a long-distance biker, Shaffer “at first pedaled very slowly and covered barely 10 miles. Now I go 13 to 15 miles an hour for rides of 20 to 30 miles.” Setting realistic goals and then reaching them is always satisfying, whether it’s increasing the resistance on a weight machine, jogging an extra few hundred yards, or finally reaching almost to your toes without bending your knees.

The Pleasure of Motion

Jewell Biggs feels that when she square dances with like-minded retirees near her Atlanta home. “As soon as a country-and-western tune comes on, even before we’re on the dance floor itself, I just start moving,” says Biggs, who taught advanced composition before retiring in 1999. “Certain kinds of music just make you feel like dancing.” If you feel that way, give in! Biggs also line dances, does advanced aerobics, and walks for exercise through local malls.

Keep On Keepin′ On


His passion for swimming keeps Warren Foster motivated to reach his personal best.

Photo by Rex Welker

That’s pretty much what Ohioan Warren Foster has been doing. Astonishingly vigorous at 85, Foster, a lifelong athlete and a former physical education teacher, spends two hours a day six days a week exercising at the YMCA; he bench presses up to 80 pounds, does 15 to 20 arm curls, lifts weights, and does “some leg work and lots with stretch cords.” He plays golf twice a week part of the year, but his true passion is competitive swimming:

“I’m a Masters-level swimmer. I compete in the state and national championships for my age group—individual medley (up to 450 yards total), some butterfly, and I’ve done the 500-yard freestyle.” Foster does well in all of those events and is nothing if not serious: to prepare for the Ohio meets, he starts “working hard” in January. He only recently gave up skiing and kayaking, by the way.

Good State of Mind

Whether you want to mellow out or get an infusion of energy, different physical activities can do a lot for your state of mind. “I can get into Zen-like meditation when I’m exercising outdoors,” Pat Shaffer says. “Just from being outdoors, the beauty of it.” Then there’s her yoga, from which she derives not only flexibility but also “calmness and focusing that carry over into the rest of my life.”

Anne Hassett of Acton, Massachusetts, doesn’t mellow out, she pumps up. Hassett and several other retired educators belong to a fitness club called Top of the Hill. “We don’t sit around talking about our ailments,” she says. “We get out and do things.”

Hassett herself walks, kayaks, cross-country skis, “anything anybody wants to do.” Besides that, she does tai chi and attends an exercise class. As an added benefit, “My children don’t worry about me. They know I’m active and happy.”


Family Togetherness

Shaffer shares almost all of her physical activities with her husband, even though “I have a tough time keeping up with him—and he’s 11 years older than I am. He got me into cross-country skiing and onto a road bike; riding the bike was like being a kid again! Hiking? We did a 17-mile stretch in Yosemite last summer, and today we’re going out for two to three hours.”

Social Connections

Group exercise can provide plenty of them; so can individual workouts in a health club. And they can easily carry over into general activities and friendships. “I’m single, and it would be easy to become isolated,” says Martha Pratt. “The aquatics class keeps that from happening. I’ve made a number of friends there.”

Jewell Biggs values the “fellowship” she finds in her dancing: “we bring food, desserts to the dances, so they also become social occasions.” Anne Hassett retired “a little early, and my good friends were still teaching. I wondered, ‘What am I going to do now?’” The Top of the Hill connections helped a lot in answering that question.

Community Service

Hassett, who taught for 21 years, mostly to second-graders, gets more than exercise out of biking long distances. Last fall, she says, “I rode 30 miles in the Hub on Wheels ride in Boston, which gave all the donations for new technology in the city’s public schools.”

Continuing to Teach

For some, a passion for their sport has led to an opportunity to teach again. Like Martha Pratt in Maine, Carol Raff, a former social worker in northern New Jersey schools, has become an instructor: “At my local Y, I instruct others how to teach yoga, and I find that people confide in me, share with me as we're going along. I also like having to figure out where each individual client ‘is’ and tailoring what I’m saying accordingly.”

Raff builds in a very personal component: “I’m a breast cancer survivor, and I have a good possibility now of working with other survivors in a breast clinic. Maybe I can introduce them to my ‘Yoga Walk,’ where you stop along the way to do yoga stretches.”

A good many of the interviewees’ comments reflect another benefit of pursuing a sport or physical activity in retirement: the opportunity to pursue new activities or pursue long-loved ones more often and more attentively. With the workaday schedule and parental obligations behind, a retiree can figuratively take wing—on anything from a bike to dancing shoes—and open whole new worlds in the process.

It ought to go without saying, but sometimes doesn’t, that those worlds should be explored with due caution. Too often, converts to physical exercise go at it fast and furiously, anxious to see “results” right away. Easing into exercise, if you’ve been doing little, is the only sensible way. It will help avoid misfortunes ranging from pulled or simply sore muscles to dizziness and nausea to—in the rare extreme case—a heart attack. It’s always a good idea to check with your doctor before pursuing a new fitness plan. If you’re working out with weights or machines, here are a half-dozen good rules to adopt at the outset and follow consistently:

  • If a personal trainer is available (at many clubs and Ys, they are free for the asking), seek their guidance and perhaps a specially designed program to get you under way.
  • If you’re on your own, start with a weight or resistance level that feels comfortable and work up gradually from there. Don’t strain hard to lift or pull when it’s obviously too difficult; good results can be obtained without that.
  • Lift the weight or use the machine to the point of what the exercise pros call failure. When your muscles start to quiver, stop.
  • Don’t rush through whatever you’re doing. Between repetitions, take time to let normal breathing return and to relax a bit. The end result will be just as beneficial as if you’d plunged right into the following rep.
  • Before starting any new exercise, find out how it should be done for maximum efficiency and to avoid injury. Sit-ups are an excellent example. There are lots of ways to do them, with new ones often touted in magazines and on the Internet. Talk to a personal trainer or somebody else you’re sure is knowledgeable, and if the recommendations differ, try them to see which works best for you.
  • Be on the lookout for new-to-you exercises that may provide new benefits or may simply be less difficult to do. Carol Raff, the yoga instructor, found relatively recently that simple stretching delivered unexpected benefits and that so-called power yoga—“where you use your body strength”—was “quite challenging.”

Let’s let the professional, Denise Foresman, have the last word on how to make physical exercise a regular part of life and, if need be, banish those ever-present excuses for doing nothing.

“I tell my clients to learn the ‘Three P’s,’” Foresman says. “First, prioritize—make yourself and your health your number-one priority. We always put others first. Even if you want or need to do that, remember that you’ll be less effective for them if you don’t take care of yourself.

“Second, prepare—I have twins, so preparation is a must. I get up an hour early, do some yoga, stretch, run, shower, dress, and I’m ready for them and the other demands of the day. I get a great psychological feeling: now I can conquer the world! People sometimes tell me, ‘That sounds so self-centered, conceited.’ I use the analogy of the oxygen mask in the airliner: you’re instructed to put on your own mask first, then help your child.

“Third, plan—“Make appointments with yourself—on the calendar, the BlackBerry, wherever—and stick to them. They’re no good to you if you don’t.”

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