Food & Fitness After 50: Guess her age!

Mary Ellen
Mary Ellen and her granddaughter, Kait, a sophomore at Purdue. Kait not only pledged the same sorority as her grandmother, she lived in the same dorm her freshman year

On Mary Ellen’s 80th birthday she gathered with 14 family members for a celebration weekend in Chicago. Her children and grandchildren asked every wait staff who served them to guess her age. Not one was close. She attributes her longevity to many factors. “My mother lived to be 100,” so she inherited some good genes, but she also learned firsthand the benefit of physical activity and social connections from her 40-year career in long-term care.

How a career choice can influence healthy aging

Mary Ellen is a registered dietitian who started consulting in nursing homes near her home in Indiana when her children were small. “When you have four little ones at home, part-time consulting work was a perfect fit.” That part-time work grew into a full-time thriving business, consulting with 35 nursing home, assisted living facilities, and group homes over her long career. She hired 11 associates to help her with the work. She sold her business several years ago but continued working with a monastery that devoted one floor of the building to members of an aging religious order. She worked with them for 40 years, “I know that it was 40 years because I started working with the sisters when my youngest son was born, and he is 50!”

What motivates you to stay fit?

The impact of working in long-term care made Mary Ellen want to keep herself as healthy as possible. Her motivations for staying fit include traveling with her husband and taking care of her grandchildren when their parents travel for work. “Keeping up with a 5 and 8-year old takes physical endurance and strength.” To keep fit and strong Mary Ellen works with a personal trainer three times a week. “I work out with a group of four women; sometimes the faces change but having the social connection keeps me committed to my workout.”  Her trainer, a 63-year old woman, knows how to structure the workouts for older adults and changes it up frequently to provide a challenge. Before the training session she spends about 30 minutes on the elliptical or treadmill to warm up and introduce some cardio work into the routine. She also walks her dog and finds she is exercising more than she did when she was working full time. That is something  many “retired” adults say; the enjoyment of being physically active when time isn’t as tight is a real perk of retirement.

Keeping the mind sharp is equally important

I put “retired” in quotes because Mary Ellen is still active in her professional world. She is a past president and currently newsletter editor for practice group for nutrition professionals who work in long-term care. In addition, she writes test questions for continuing education courses, and talks to the undergraduate students at Purdue University, her Alma mater. All these activities keep her “mentally sharp and up to date” with the latest research in her field.

As you might image, a registered dietitian knows how eat healthfully, but moderation is her eating style, and nothing is off limits. She has found that her appetite isn’t as good as it was in her younger years and lunch is the hardest meal for her; “if I eat too much at lunch I’m not hungry for dinner, so I try to eat a lighter meal at either lunch or dinner depending on my hunger level.” Also, she has become more conscious of hydration. “I don’t think I was drinking enough water, so each time I wash my hands I drink a glass of water. It’s a good reminder to stay hydrated.”

Her tips for optimal aging?

  • Keep your mind active. In addition to her professional involvement, Mary Ellen plays Words with Friends to keep mentally active.
  • In addition to regularly scheduled exercise, she keeps active throughout the day by taking “activity snacks” of 5 to 10 minutes of physical activity every few hours.
  • And, she maintains an active social life to stay connected.

Mary Ellen and her husband recently celebrated their 57th wedding anniversary with family and friends. Her grandchildren wanted to celebrate the event my going to the zoo, so after a nice family dinner, she walked the hilly zoo. “I might have been a few paces behind, but I kept up!”

For more tips on eating well, moving well, and being well, check out Food & Fitness After 50.