Exercise is a positive coping skill: Learn how it helps as we age

No matter how well we eat or how many times we exercise, stuff happens as we age. Sometimes it’s an accident, sometimes it’s just bad luck, and sometimes it’s genetics. We know high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, and smoking are the “big 3” risk factors for heart disease (and, about half of Americans have at least one of these risk factors). But, when you add heredity and one or more of the big 3 factors, the risk is exponentially increased. In this post, Bob Murray introduces us to a master’s swimmer, Irene, and her journey of resilience and coping and how exercise saved her life!

Guest post by Dr. Bob Murray

No one knows for certain when Irene had her first heart attack.  She was informed about it only when her second heart attack was diagnosed.  After having experienced a second heart attack, she believes her first heart attack happened about two years earlier while she was skiing in Utah at 10,000 feet.  She recalls feeling awful, but thought she was just experiencing altitude sickness.  She did not seek medical attention and never mentioned it to her primary care physician, decisions she now knows were big mistakes.  Two years later, at age 67, Irene woke in the middle of the night with the real deal – and was certain she was having a heart attack.  Her husband was out of town, so she was taken by ambulance to the hospital.  She immediately told the ER doctor about her family history of heart disease, nonetheless, the doctor declared her symptoms to be heartburn and sent Irene home. 

Relieved that it wasn’t a heart attack, Irene went through with her plans to fly to North Carolina the next morning to connect with her husband to take their 2 young grandsons on a trip.  Irene felt extremely tired but was no longer having chest pains.  She attributed the exhaustion to being up most of the previous night.  After 4 days in NC, it became obvious there was still something very wrong and Irene went to the small-town ER where they were staying.  She was soon flown by helicopter to a major medical center and had middle-of-the-night surgery to correct a heart valve that was not functioning properly and posed an immediate threat to her life.  Two days later, she had open-heart surgery for 5 coronary artery by-passes.  Two weeks later, Irene had a pacemaker implanted in her upper chest, which has since been replaced with an ICD (pacemaker-defibrillator).  She spent 10 days in intensive care and a total of 3 weeks in the hospital and came out feeling almost dead, but very happy to be alive.  Unfortunately for Irene, the 4-day delay caused permanent damage to her heart, killing 50% of her heart muscle cells.

Irene, left, with husband, daughter, son-in-law and grandsons skiing in Utah, after her 2nd heart attack and bypass surgery

Irene’s Formative Yeas

Irene was raised in a suburb of Chicago.  As with many kids in1940s and 1950s, her parents told her to “go outside and play and come home when the streetlights come on.”  There were lots of kids in her neighborhood and they played active games like hide-and-see, kick-the-can, jump-rope, tennis, and baseball. In the winter, they ice skated, sledded, and played in the snow.  At that time, hardly anyone owned a television, so screen time was non-existent– kids were outside and constantly active. Irene’s meals were almost always at home, going to a restaurant was rare, and they didn’t eat fast food or TV dinners.  Meals were basic “meat and potatoes,” along with whatever vegetables Irene’s parents could get her to eat.  

Irene remembers her childhood as being almost idyllic, except for one very important event: her father died of a heart attack at age 34 when Irene was only 4 years old.  Not only did heart disease claim Irene’s father, her paternal grandfather and all 6 of her father’s siblings also died from heart disease.

When she was 6, Irene learned to swim while on a vacation.  At the age of 10, she joined the local YMCA swim team.  She loved competitive swimming right from the start and continued for 8 years, “retiring” when she graduated high school.  This was pre-Title IX, and there were more disincentives than incentives for women to participate in sports in college.

Although many of her friends smoked in high school, Irene did not because of her swimming.  She had survived the pressures to smoke in high school, so Irene thought she was safe from that habit.  But as an 18-year-old college freshman, she started smoking and continued for the next 13 years.

When she graduated from college, Irene married and took a job where many of her co-workers also smoked, as did her husband.  When her daughter came along 4 years later, she left the business world to become a full-time mother and homemaker.  Her new lifestyle was more sedentary than active, and she began to gain weight.  Keenly aware of the medical history of heart disease in her father’s family, Irene knew she had to start exercising regularly.  She tried several activities but didn’t enjoy any of them as much as she had enjoyed swimming.  In 1972, the local YMCA started a masters swim team and an old swimming friend pestered Irene until she finally agreed to give it a try.  She wanted to swim but didn’t think she wanted to compete and certainly didn’t intend to train as strenuously as she had as a teenager.  At 28, Irene thought she was much too old for those workouts.

A Masters Swimmer, a Masters Degree, and a Law Degree

After a few training sessions and her first masters meet in 1972, Irene was hooked.  Her workouts soon became much more strenuous than when she was a teen, and she added strength training as part of her routine.  Irene was swimming faster than she ever had, setting national masters records … and still smoking!  After 3 years of swimming and smoking, Irene decided it was just crazy to smoke and finally quit, “cold turkey,” and never looked back.  Her husband quit the next year. 

Irene swimming in the snow in Park City, Utah. “It was chilly, but fun,” she says.

Around that same time, Irene decided to become a part-time student to earn a masters degree with the goal of teaching at a local community college. She reached that goal and taught for 7 years, but her dream was to be an attorney, so at the age of 40, Irene enrolled as a full-time student in law school.  She wasn’t the oldest one in her class, but close to it.  After receiving her law degree, Irene enjoyed a very satisfying 31-year law career, retiring at age 74 only because her health demanded it. 

After the heart attacks

After her heart attacks, open heart surgery, valve replacement and long stint in the ICU,

Irene was put on a long list of medications and went through cardiac rehab, but it was still a huge disappointment when she first got back into the pool.  She swam 1 length and came up gasping for air. Once upon a time she had been a Masters national champion in butterfly events multiple times, but now could barely swim 50 yards!  That was 10 years ago.  Since then, Irene has been swimming, walking, doing some resistance work, and is currently going through her second round of 36 sessions of cardiac rehab.  Irene knows her diet isn’t perfect but tries to eat lean meat and include fish and more fruits and vegetables in her meals.  Although she has a sweet tooth, she tries (with varying degrees of success) to control it.  Every cardiologist she now meets tells her that her history of regular exercise is the only reason she survived the second heart attack. 

Irene retired when she was 74 because she wanted to exercise more but needed a 2-4 hour nap after doing so.  Now 77, Irene continues her exercise routines and current sessions of cardiac rehab, resting whenever she feels the need.  She stills go to Utah to ski each year but limits her skiing to altitudes less than 10,000 feet.  Irene also spends time with friends, reads, and does a little sewing and gardening.  

Adjusting Activity to Fit Your Circumstances

“I’ve had to adjust my swimming goals from being very competitive to just enjoying being in the water,” says Irene.   “I think the most important thing I have done for my health is, as my front license plate reads: “Just keep swimming.”  Irene says the best advice she’s received about health issues is to keep moving as much as your energy level allows and look around you – you’ll always find someone with worse health problems.  Irene’s advice to anyone with similar health problems is, “Don’t give up.  Keep working at whatever it is that makes you happy.  Sitting in your rocker and grieving for your lost health will only make your health worse and probably hasten your death.”  A poster on Irene’s wall nicely sums up her philosophy, “You don’t quit swimming because you get old, you get old because you quit swimming.” 

Irene snorkeling with son-in-law and grandsons in Mexico.

Resilience and Coping Skills

Irene’s story points to resilience and coping skills needed for healthy aging. Resilience influences how we evaluate a stressful situation and coping is the strategy we use to manage stressful events. Coping strategies can be positive or negative. Optimism, humor, acceptance, spirituality or religiosity, social support, role models, and exercise are examples of positive coping. Research shows that resilient older individuals tend to employ the positive adaptive coping strategies. Irene’s exercise habits not only help her physically, but also mentally. Physical activity improves the quality of our lives and reduces anxiety and depression.

Irene is truly a role model for all of us as we navigate the challenges of aging! Share your story with us and let us feature how you eat well, move well, and be well as you age. Reach me at chrisrosenbloom@gmail.com and follow our blog by clicking here.

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian and nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. Chris and Bob are the authors of Food & Fitness After 50.