Home SHAPE You’re never too old to exercise, these seniors say

You’re never too old to exercise, these seniors say

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Dallas resident Mary Bennett (right) follows instructor Angela White during a chair exercise session at Park South Family YMCA in Dallas. (Shafkat Anowar/The Dallas Morning News/TNS)

Leslie Barker
The Dallas Morning News

When you are in your 80s or your 90s, or perhaps your 70s or 60s, you may think your exercise train has left the station and you’re perfectly happy not to be on board.

But exercise — or movement, if that sounds less intimidating — is both imperative and doable no matter your age.

“My mother goes out into a breezeway at the senior living facility where she lives in Florida and walks down and back several times a day,” says Eduardo Sanchez, chief medical officer for prevention with the American Heart Association. “If my 87-year-old mother can step outside and do that, everybody can do it and feel good about doing it. It’s never too late to start.

“Every movement counts.”

That philosophy is exactly what Patricia Lewis extols and lives. She turned 82 on Feb. 15, and she is all about what she calls “dailiness.”

“I do a little something every day,” says Lewis, a transplanted New Yorker who moved to Richardson 10 years ago to be close to her daughter and grandson. “Dailiness determines your quality of life.”

In New York, she regularly walked two miles on a bike path near her apartment and practiced yoga in a class and at home.

“Every morning, I’d do a salutation to the sun, just to connect all the body points and joints and wake my body up,” she says. “Then I had a knee operation and haven’t been able to do that. So I asked myself, ‘What can I do now? How much? How little?’ “

She remembered her yoga instructor “stressing the importance of moving your body and your thoughts,” Lewis says “That was the way she lived her life. It showed me that the things you do on a regular basis determine your quality of life.”

So she took water aerobics classes but stopped because the pool was kept cool for the swim teams practicing there. She joined a chair yoga class at the Richardson Senior Center, where she is every Monday. After class, she pedals a stationary bike for a half-hour.

Lewis tries, usually successfully, to meet the government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans — 150 minutes of moderate intensity per week. If she doesn’t get outside to walk, she sets a timer and every hour walks around her house for 10 minutes. She also has a 6-minute wake-up routine she often follows.

“I do stretches, a little running in place, plus sitting and standing with my arms folded or stretched out in front of me. When I was a kid, I used to double Dutch jump rope. I don’t have a rope, but I try to use those steps to get my body working.”

Lewis’ dailiness gives her a positive commitment to taking care of herself, she says.

“I love the feeling of movement, and I love the feeling that I’m taking care of my body. In my younger years, I took it for granted. Now I can appreciate what a wonderful instrument the body is; I’ve come to respect it more than ever.”

For Ron Fisher, exercise is a habit he started as a teenager, honed in the U.S. Army and continued through his 40s to now his 80s with determination and resolve. Six days a week, he’s at the gym for two hours — the first, doing strength training on either his upper or lower body; the second, either walking on a treadmill or holding his own in a spin class with people decades younger.

“I still feel like I’m 40,” says Fisher, who turns 84 on Feb. 17. “My weight is the same as it was when I was 19. I wear the same size pants as I did when I was 19. My vital signs are the same as they were when I was 19.”

Whenever he sees his doctor, she tells him he makes her want to go home and work out. His previous doctor called him her “star patient.”

“After all these years, working out is a habit I cannot break,” he says. “I very much enjoy the people I meet in the gym and hope I am setting an example. I enjoy it. I am happy to go to the gym, and I feel great when I leave.”

When Mary Bennett moved to the neighborhood she calls home in 1983, she was delighted the Park South Family YMCA was only three blocks away.

“I just knew exercise was good for you,” says Bennett, 82, “so I went ahead and joined the Y and became alive.”

She’d walk to class after she got off work; once she retired, she kept going to classes. After a stroke in 2019, she quit water aerobics, but rare is the Monday or Wednesday morning that she isn’t one of the stalwarts in an exercise class for seniors. She especially likes when the Wednesday class includes line dancing.

“I’m hoping through doing this that I don’t become sedentary,” Bennett says, “that I’ll be able to get up and be independent and do things for myself. Plus this helps me use my brain, too. You have to do a little thinking: Is my foot supposed to go up front or to the side? You have to keep up with the instructor. But the main thing is you keep moving.”

After class, she enjoys having coffee at the Y with classmates. At home, her activities include laundry and light housekeeping. She might go outside and walk around her yard, reveling in feeling the sun on her skin and breathing in fresh air.

“I have friends I try to get to exercise,” she says, “but they just talk about their ailments and have a woe-is-me attitude. I tell them even if they don’t want to be with a group, maybe they can get together with a neighbor who’s home like they are. I tell them, ‘You can walk up one side of the street and down the other.’ “

She looks forward to her classes, to seeing friends, to feeling rejuvenated at hour’s end.

“Exercise makes you feel better about yourself,” she says. “About life. About living.”

Brenda Heckmann, who turns 81 on Feb. 20, is as much — if not more — a believer in movement as she was when she took her first dance class as a child. She’s done it all — dancing, water skiing and aerobics classes, which she also taught.

When she was in her mid-40s, she underwent a mastectomy one year and another the next. Three years later, she was in an almost fatal car accident. She survived but was in terrible pain. She tried yoga and Pilates; the pain was relentless.

Then she got into the water and began doing deep-water running and aerobics.

“The first time I did it, I didn’t hurt,” she says. “I felt like this was an answer from heaven.”

She became certified to teach arthritis aerobics, which she’s been doing at the Moody Family YMCA in Dallas since 1991. These days, she teaches one class; the rest of the time when she’s at the Y, she does one-on-one personal training in the water.

“My pain level can be managed if I’m in the pool three or four times a week and if I do good stretches in the morning when I wake up,” she says. “We all need to move. We were born with too many movable parts not to move.”

Heckmann advocates water exercise for everyone, no matter their age. Or if you’re not near a pool, walk, she says.

“If you sit around and do nothing, you’re more prone to depression and anxiety,” she says. “You need to get the blood flowing, to fill your lungs. Moving is one of the most important things to do. You have to keep your muscles moving to keep you vital, and we want to be vital till the day we leave this Earth.”

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