Before we go one step further, let’s agree, at least for the time we spend together in this article, to retire the word “seniors.” When you’re in a room with great music and a group of people in all stages of fitness, with hair in mostly shades of grey—stretching, dancing, bending, jogging, laughing, panting, slugging water and generally surrendering themselves to the joy of movement—the word “seniors,” with its connotation of shuffling old age, just doesn’t seem to apply.
Now that word is out that exercise (along with good food, a good attitude and good social relationships) is essential to keeping healthy and active as we age, we’re seeing a revolution in health and fitness in people over age 50. Here in the North Bay, they’re joining together, getting fit and giving and receiving moral support in groups and classes sponsored by local hospitals, community organizations, senior (oops, still using that word) centers and national organizations.
All of a sudden, being over 50 is looking pretty good—at least in our area, where opportunities abound for health and fitness practices that fit almost any budget, physical need and personality preference. The one thing they all have in common is an acceptance that everyone ages, and that keeping moving is essential to enjoying it.
Looking at the fitness possibilities available for the ever-increasing 50-plus age group in the North Bay, the first thing to notice is that the idea of exercise has changed. If you’re old enough to remember Jane Fonda’s floor-pounding “feel the burn” workouts, you may think of fitness training as a high impact, body-punishing drill designed for hard-bellied millennials. Not anymore. The movers in today’s exercise revolution understand that fitness is about more than just body sculpting; it’s about living healthy, active lives, even as we age. They understand that movement and social engagement are keys to keeping healthy—both now and for the long haul.
Local opportunities for practicing life-long health and fitness in a social context range from competing in organized games to participating in the many local hospital- and community-sponsored fitness groups and health clubs offering everything from gentle aerobics to all-out zumba. Here are some of the opportunities for fun and fitness over 50 in our area.
In Novato and San Rafael, Jeanette Logan, owner and director of Youthful Hearts in Marin, brings a fitness practice that starts participants over 50 right where they are, health-wise, and gently coaches them to move and stretch and build their personal fitness in an atmosphere that’s welcoming, nurturing, accepting and supportive.
“We have people with high blood pressure, arthritis and other ailments,” says Logan, “so there’s a need to learn how to put yourself in the ‘now’ and realize there’s always a way to move.”
This approach is designed to help everyone, including those who might say they’re too out-of-shape to get fit. To that, she says, gently, “Nonsense”: “You start where you are, and ask, ‘What can I do now?’ Start by acknowledging what you can do. There’s an inner strength that grows from that.” She says she learned to work this way after injuring herself a few times when she was younger (she’s now 52) doing full-steam ahead, high-impact aerobics. She learned the value of mindfulness practice applied to fitness and now encourages her 50-plus students to progress at their own speed, even within group classes.
“We’re doing movements designed to help strengthen muscles and bring more flexibility and ease of movement,” she says. “We each have permission to laugh at ourselves when we mess up.”
Logan acknowledges the role physical fitness plays in in maintaining mental fitness, saying, “My classes support brain health. I throw a lot of coordination exercises in the mix.” These exercises work the mind as well as the body, and failure isn’t part of the mix. “We have the golden rule: If you mess up, smile or laugh at yourself. That feel-good hormone you produce will help you. When you remove the pressure of having to be perfect, you feel so much better about yourself that you get inspired,” she says. “That’s my approach.”
She says that, over and above all the physical exercise, her prime focus is to welcome people and help them begin to get active wherever they are, and to build their fitness from there. “It’s a very accepting environment. If people need to sit down or modify a particular movement or not use weights on a particular day, they can,” she says, “while still feeling good about themselves and also learning how to manage and modify activities according to their own condition.” Through careful, progressive work, her participants learn to experience the joy of motion that’s right for them as they challenge themselves and support each other’s successes.
“There’s a positive energy that starts to build, where you’re more inspired and you begin exploring what can you do.” This, in itself, is an antidote to the discouragement that can come when aches and pains would prevent us from the activities we once enjoyed. For Logan, the feeling of accomplishment—the joy of movement itself—is part of promoting health and her classes are all about encouragement. Self-criticism has no place at Youthful Hearts. “If you’re stuck in the past and criticizing yourself,” she says, “you’re impeding the performance of your brain, because of all the cortisol [stress hormone] that’s made from the pressure of criticizing yourself.” In her classes encouragement is practiced.
Some of her classes have a long waiting list. “My classes are well attended, and I feel blessed,” she acknowledges. “We have love and respect for each other, which helps create a warm and friendly energy.”
That energy begins with her. “Every human being matters,” she says. “I’m dedicated to having people feel a sense of community and feel welcome and included.” To find out about available classes, go to www.youthfulhearts.com.
Say you’re 80 years old and just want to get outside, be with others and do something challenging. Maybe you want to put on your track shoes and see if you can make it across a finish line and feel the rush. Or maybe you’re in your early 50s and you’ve always been competitive; now that you’ve retired, you’d love to get out there, test yourself against others in your age group and (maybe) win. Maybe you’re dedicated and goal-oriented and practice all year with competition in mind. Maybe you just love to make new friends and try something new. Whatever your motivation, and whatever your sport, if you’re 50 or older, you can compete in the annual Sonoma Wine Country Games (SWCG), a series of competitions sponsored by the Council on Aging.
“All research shows that the more healthy and active you are in your 50s and 60s, the healthier you’ll be in your 70s, 80s and 90s,” says Leigh Galten, coordinator of SWCG. “So the Council of Aging is trying to provide an opportunity for people to continue to be active, healthy and social.” The games take place over two weeks each year, in and around Santa Rosa. Athletes age 50 or older can compete in 20 different sports and games, including archery, badminton, basketball, bocce, bowling, cycling, lawn bowling, golf, pickleball, petanque, handball, soccer, swimming, table tennis, tennis, track and field and volleyball, among others.
Galten describes the benefit of competition as not just physical, but social. “The social element is huge,” she says. “People get together and train, and they keep up with each other throughout the year between competitions.” For example, in Santa Rosa, a community has actually grown up around pickleball. “The Sonoma County Pickleball Club is teaching people, providing a place, the ball and the camaraderie,” she says. “They say it’s a wonderful way to get together with people who no longer work.”
Competitions divide age groups into 5-year intervals, starting at 50 and extending into the 80s. “It’s great to see these individuals in their 80s learning something new,” says Galten, remembering an 81-year-old woman who came to the games two years ago from out of the area and set a world record in the track meet. “It turned out that the meet was held in Santa Rosa High School, which happens to have been where she had first taught, as a brand new teacher, many years ago.”
It’s not unusual to have contestants from outside the area, Galten continues. “We pull a lot of people from Palm Desert, Oregon, Washington state and Florida. We live in this beautiful part of the world, so we’re lucky to play off Wine Country. People come for the beautiful destination and the fun event.” Last year, SWCG events drew 1,200 athletes from 10 different states and Canada.
The fun for Galten is talking to athletes of all experience levels who share a common spirit of enthusiasm and drive. “I’m talking to people who’ve been track athletes since high school or who’ve always swam competitively, as well as people who’ve just picked up a sport, like bocce, cycling or pickleball, and who’re now competing in it,” she says.
Competitors at all levels of achievement are welcome. “I talk to a lot of people who are cyclists,” she says, “and this may be their first ride, on their old fat wheel, and they’re just riding to see if they can cross the finish line.” Sometimes they surprise themselves. At a recent track event, a woman showed up who just wanted to go for a stroll and see if she could walk a mile and be part of something. Galten laughs, “Turns out, she won a medal!” It’s that kind of enthusiasm that makes the competition magic. “It’s fun to listen to people talking about something they’ve always been passionate about and are continuing to do, and then to hear others say they just wanted to become more active and, ‘My gosh! I’ve just won a gold medal in shot put!’”
Community participation helps to make the games happen. “Parkpoint Fitness Club has been a big partner,” says Galten. “This year, it’s going to host our handball tournament.” SWCG serves as a fund-raiser for Council on Aging. “There’s a registration fee of $45,” she says, “and each game has a sporting fee associated with it, whether $3 for a track meet or $45 for 18 holes of golf.”
The money goes to producing the games, which are run like professional tournaments, with timing companies and sanctioned officials. Money over and above expenses goes back to Council on Aging programs such as Meals on Wheels, case management and others. This year the event runs from June 3 through June 19, in Santa Rosa. For more information, go to winecountrygames.com.
Queen of the Valley Hospital’s Synergy Medical Fitness Center, a state-of-the-art facility in Napa, is a perfect example of the new approach to health care that emphasizes wellness and prevention through activity, nutrition and stress management. To patients, community members and even curious visitors, Synergy offers a world of medical, general health and fitness practice opportunities in a spacious setting adjacent to the hospital.
Whether you’re transitioning from post-surgery rehab, practicing regular preventive health maintenance or just dropping in for a dance class or swim, the atmosphere is supportive, inclusive and welcoming. You can join as a full-time or short-term member and participate in activities promoting wellness as your schedule permits. You can take your pick of fitness classes designed for those 50-plus, from indoor cycling, weight training, swimming, cross-training, tai chi, quigong, strength and sculpting, pilates, yoga and dancing.
As a medical fitness center, it offers programs for people referred to physical therapy by their doctors, who are assigned a physical therapist and personal trainer to help them complete their rehab from surgery or get them fit before having surgery. “Synergy Medical Fitness center helps people get back to fully functioning in the world,” says Synergy Assistant General Manager Pamela Contos. “We address all levels—all mental, physical and spiritual, needs—we offer hope.” Synergy offers a full range of medical fitness and rehab programs for those under medical care, and also general fitness programs for members of the community.
“Synergy has done very well, but our focus isn’t on the bottom line,” says Contos. “Above all, Synergy is here to offer the community and Queen employees a place to be healthy and achieve wellness. This objective falls perfectly in-line with our health system’s core values of service, justice, dignity and excellence.”
“We get testimonials from people who tell us, ‘If I couldn’t come here, I don’t know what I would do,’” she says. “They say, ‘I come for the camaraderie’ and, ‘If I didn’t have this, I don’t know where I’d go.’” As for Contos, she says, “It’s the most rewarding place I’ve ever worked.”
Synergy classes and groups for age 50-plus include a list so extensive that anyone should be able to find something that works for their schedule, personal level and preference. For more information go to www.wellnesscenternapa.com.
If you don’t already have your fitness routine in place and are looking for a venue that will let you to become more active, you may find opportunities to get up, get out and get going even as close at hand as your spouse, partner or friends. Fitness is for everyone. You may find what’s right for you at your neighborhood health club or spa, in the list of adult education classes at your local college or through senior centers or clubs dedicated to specific sports. You can find “meet-ups” in the San Francisco Bay Area specifically devoted to over 50 activities and, in our local counties, there are hiking and other meet-ups not specific to age.
Whatever your choice, the best advice we’ve found boils down to: Get moving. Keep moving. Start where you are, and just get out there!
Susan McWilliams of St. Helena, a former newspaper editor and writer, doesn’t mind admitting she’s 72. In fact, she’s proud of being as fit as she is: She feels great. She and her husband, Terry, live a rich life of world travel, hiking, camping, culinary enjoyment, social engagement and a long-time practice of daily workouts. She’s a model of the kind of daily, year-in-year-out faithful fitness practitioner who finds herself not only over 50, but over 70 and looking forward to every morning. For her, the day’s workout, swim and other activities aren’t a campaign or a trend—it’s a lifelong habit.
“When we first moved here in the ’80s, I walked the ‘Dean York loop,’ a couple of miles through St. Helena every morning before work. Then in the 90s I joined an exercise group at the Presbyterian church. In 1997, the Health Spa Napa Valley opened up, and we were there from day one. We go there every single day, and it’s just a part of my day, just like dinner every day, I go to the health club every day, when I’m in town. It’s just part of life, like, ‘What time are we going to the club?’”
Terry has established a routine and has come to know some of the men his age who go at the same time. “For him, it’s as much social as physical,” she says. “And so the more you go, the more you get to know people, and then the more you will go back.”
These days, in addition to the workouts at the club, McWilliams takes gentle yoga at NVC, and also volunteers to walk horses at Sunrise Horse Rescue in St Helena. “So I get a mile in a couple times a week, doing that.”
Any advice for the rest of us, who might not be so motivated? “Yoga is good for balance,” she says. “That’s something you find, as you get older—your balance isn’t as good. The yoga instructor teaches how we can practice balance in our daily life. Say, standing on one foot, while brushing our teeth or while waiting in line at the supermarket.” The point of it all is not to suffer or strain, but to feel good. “Do whatever you can to motivate yourself to exercise,” she says. “You feel so good when you do it!”
Burrell Wyle, who, at 85, still looks forward to competing in the Sonoma Wine Country Games, credits his health, mental acuity and well-being to his lifelong practice of archery as well as his ability to stay engaged in civic and church activities. A resident of Santa Rosa since 1964 and member of the Sonoma County Bowmen (which also includes women), he’s a model for those who believe activity and engagement are key to healthy and happy later years. “I’ve been competing in archery since I was 17,” he says. “It’s the one sport I enjoy. I don’t golf, play baseball oranything else. I’m pretty fit. I’m still at my high school weight and the oldest still living in my family.”
He says the physical part is very important but the social part is, too. “I’m an officer in our club, so I keep up with the financial and other aspects of it.” Also, “At my age, one thing you want is to keep mentally fit,” he says. To that end, he reads the newspaper every day, cover to cover, and does crossword puzzles. He’s on a committee in his church, which also keeps him on his toes.
He has a wall of archery trophies in his home. Some he won with his late wife, Bonnie, who, he says, chose to take up archery with him rather than stay at home as an “archery widow.” He feels a sense of pleasure and pride in his accomplishments, especially his success in the Sonoma Wine Country Games. “It’s good, because you’re competing against people in your own age group,” he says. “In archery, like a lot of other sports, age is a factor.”
To keep in practice, the Bowmen have a competition every month, and Wyle is the awards chairman. “I keep track of everybody’s scores. I’ve been doing that for a number of years.”
Anything else he does to keep young and fit? In addition to competing, he does hunt and fish with his bow and arrow. In 1985, he had a heart bypass operation, and almost became a vegetarian, he says. “But I still love a steak once in a while.”
The Kids Are Alright is a dancing group founded in the summer of 2012 by Bob Favreau, born from a vision to make a community for dancers. Based in Sonoma County, the group takes the opportunity to rejoice in dance, support its members and to communicate with each other.
The group originally began when Favreau, who was attending an outdoor concert at Montgomery Village in Santa Rosa “noticed one woman dancing alone in front of the band, with hundreds of other people just sitting there. I knew many of them probably wanted to dance too, they were just a little self-conscious. So I jumped in and started dancing. At the end of the song, we gave each other a hug.”
At the next song, more strangers joined in the dancing. “By the end of the concert, there were so many were dancing and hugging, says Favreau. “The next weekend [at the next Montgomery Village concert] we all began to chat together.” When a group photo was taken, Favreau looked at the photo and marveled, “The kids are alright!”
According to Favreau, members in the group range from 2 to 90 years of age. The only requirements are to show up, be noncombative, hug, be willing to have their picture taken and, most important, dance.
“We have 239 Kids who stay in daily contact with each other, but at large, we have about 450 Kids. We support each other in every facet of our lives, whether it be daily problems, weddings, sickness or death.”
As a result of this group, Favreau says, “We have more love in our lives than we ever dreamed was possible.” He characterizes the group as “a tornado that keeps getting stronger.” The group dances every day, in four counties. “The venues love us and the bands love us, because where ever we are, excitement just explodes. The other customers have fun and the business thrives.” However, the members don’t have to pay to get in the venues where they dance. New members are acquired the old fashioned way, through face-to-face interaction with another member.
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