Food & Fitness After 50: A, B, Cs of Aging (Agility, Balance, and Coordination)

After hip replacement surgery I was looking for a class that would continue my rehabilitation and help me be more flexible, agile, and coordinated as I approached my mid-60s. I found it, and so much more, at a twice weekly 60-minute “yo-flex” class at my local YMCA. The class combines classical yoga poses, with Pilates moves, and balance exercises; it’s been 5 years since my first class and I’m hooked!

Exercise physiologist, Dr. Bob Murray, co-author of Food & Fitness After 50, reminds us that balance, flexibility, and agility can all be improved with regular practice and should be part of a well-designed exercise program for older adults. “Balance, flexibility, and agility wane with age mostly because we neglect them. One of the many negatives associated with a sedentary lifestyle is that overall motor function—our ability to move in unrestricted ways—atrophies along with muscle mass. It’s true that if we don’t use it, we lose it, and that applies to balance, flexibility, and agility. All too often, balance, flexibility, and agility training are neglected in favor of cardiovascular and strength training.”

When I said I found so much more than an exercise class, I meant that I also found a friend in instructor, Tina. I asked Tina about her journey to healthy aging and I think her story will resonate with many of you and inspire everyone.

What do you do to stay active and has it changed as you’ve reached your fifties?

Tina HowardWell, as you know I love yoga!  I practice twice a week at the YMCA and sometimes at home with videos on Yoga with Adriene.  I also enjoy taking yoga classes when I travel to learn from other instructors. I started playing pickleball last year and really enjoyed that until I had knee surgery.  For now, I am limited to light weight training and yoga until my knee integrates fully.  It’s funny how you can be lazy and just think, “I will work out tomorrow,” but when you are injured and can’t exercise, it is all you want to do!

My activity level has been up and down over time.  When I was young, we lived in a city where just going outside was dangerous, and so I was a chubby kid – short for my age, and very round.  I watched a lot of TV.  Then we moved to a suburb with broad streets and little traffic.  Like a lot of 1970s kids, we were on bikes all day…flying around the neighborhood, playing kickball and touch football, only coming inside when it was too dark to see.  I stayed active throughout my twenties and thirties by running and cycling.  My husband is an ex-athlete, so we enjoyed an active lifestyle until kids came along.  As a working parent with three children, my spare time was spent watching my kids play sports.  I began to feel bad and started having aching joints and muscle spasms.  And, then I discovered yoga. Research supports the benefits of yoga for balance and flexibility, and more recently it has been shown to help ease pain of knee osteoarthritis in older women.

What motivates you to stay active? 

When I was younger, I would sign up for competitive road races.  I am a goal-oriented person, so having entered a race made me stick to a training schedule.  As I entered middle age, it came down to something much simpler: I feel really bad when I don’t move. I feel much better when I do.

I know you are a vegetarian; what led you to adopt that dietary pattern?

I don’t eat meat and haven’t since I was a kid.  I’ve always loved animals and my dad took me on farm tours when I was young. Seeing poultry and cattle production and realizing they were being raised for food just bothered me, so I decided to be a vegetarian. And, besides the ethical issues for me, vegetarian diets provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and some cancers.

I have a healthy appetite and could eat all day long, but I’ve found a way to keep hunger in check. I keep a stash of raw almonds everywhere – my car and my briefcase.  They’re a little sweet, so they satisfy my sweet tooth while providing protein, healthy fats, and fiber, so I feel satiated.  Almonds pair well with bananas and apples for a quick breakfast or snack, and they also pair with dark chocolate for a sweet treat.

If you had to name 3 things you do to age well, what would they be?

  1. Learn to read your body’s cues. Try to understand why you feel bad, why you are grouchy, sore, irritated, or sick.  Then, be prepared to try to do some self-care to remedy it.  Many of our health issues are self-inflicted by poor diet and lack of exercise. So, instead of reaching for a pill, first try a lifestyle change.
  2. Hormonal changes, especially at menopause, can lead to insomnia, fatigue, bone and muscle loss, and an increase in belly fat. Find a doctor that understands the hormonal changes of aging and work together to find a solution that is best for you. And, ask your doctor to check other hormone levels, like thyroid and Vitamin D, and if the levels are out of the normal range, remedy it before it leads to major health problems.
  3. Socialize often. With age often comes isolation from kids leaving home, retirement, or the loss of parents or friends. Social interaction takes more planning and effort as we age – if we don’t have to be somewhere, it is easy to stay in our comfort zone at home. Social activities and social connections are important to our mental health.  And, by social interactions, I don’t mean Facebook or Instagram!

Do you have any words of wisdom for others?

Find a healthy activity you like and go do it, no matter what.  Don’t wait for your spouse to join you or your friends to sign up with you.  Be prepared to go it alone, be prepared to try a million different things, and be prepared to feel awkward.

When I started practicing yoga, it felt foreign and silly.  Here were these hippy-dippie instructors with belly button rings that could bend themselves into shapes I could only imagine! I’d be in sweatpants, trying to fold myself over after a day at the desk, and I’d think, “this is so not me!” But, I kept going anyway ,and although I didn’t become like the other people, I eventually got comfortable in my own skin and accepted what I could do. Fitting in was more about me accepting myself than being like the others.  So, find your joy – live in it every day.