Sunday, July 29, 2012

Inspiring Our Inner Olympians

There were many memorable moments in the spectacular Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics. But the one that lingers for me is the parade of nations at opening ceremony and the athletes from countries around the world. They came in many skin colors and physical sizes, but shared one essential quality: they were beautiful in their fitness and their youthful exuberance.

I was thrilled watching them. There is no way I could ever have been in their ranks. I've never been an athlete. I was always the last picked on our parochial school volleyball teams and had such a distinctive lack of ability, such an aversion to the ball, that schoolmates would wince and moan if I ended up on their teams. In high school, I was infamous for my gym excuses. I think I claimed to have my period for at least three-and-a-half years straight in order to avoid the dreaded gym classes.

Yet I loved to dance, studied for years, danced a bit professionally in musical theatre and recreationally for years after that. Though my enthusiasm far outweighed any natural talent,  I remember joy of movement, of testing the limits, and of delicious exhaustion. I remember, quite a few years back, that I once had a  slim body. Part of that, of course, was youth. But the rest was my regimen of dance classes and running five miles a day with my husband.

One of the few regrets I have in my life is allowing my exercise regimen to skid to a halt sometime around the age of forty. The rest is a sad history of yo-yo dieting and struggles with obesity. But, in the past two years, I have been in the process of reclaiming the joy of movement with daily gym work works, swimming and walking. I'm still overweight and look at least my age if not a bit older. But I feel immeasurably better.

An active adult/retirement community is an interesting place to watch the aging process in action -- and the stark differences between those who are truly active and those who aren't.

There are those who have never exercised and who are suffering the consequences in bad health, crippling arthritis and growing weakness.  But there are others who may have been active all their lives or who have come to it lately who are marvelous examples of the benefits of fitness.

There is Tom, lean, muscular, a serious hiker and an awesome gym fixture. He coaches other people in weight training. He is strong and fit, combining weight work with stretching and aerobics on the elliptical machine daily. Then, of course, he trains for long, strenuous mountain hikes by making five trips up and down a steep and treacherous local butte several times a week. Tom looks like an exceedingly fit 50 year old -- but is an astonishing 81 years old.

There is Theo, who never misses a spinning class, bikes several miles a day, works out at the gym, swims and is an amazing tap dancer. With his tall, lean body, he could pass for a man in his forties. No one would ever guess that Theo is 73.

My husband Bob is another inspiration. He was my running partner when we were in our thirties, but he never stopped exercising. He runs 3-5 miles a day out in the desert and then hits the gym with fast jump roping, weights and more running on the treadmill. He is very slim, muscular and in amazing shape for any age, let alone 68, and has the vigor of a man many years younger.

I see many fit women as well, but one of the most impressive is someone who discovered the joy of exercise relatively late in life.

Irene is 50 and when I met her three years ago -- in July 2009 when we were visitors to this community -- she was markedly obese. We met in the pool where she was talking with friends about her new resolution to get slim and fit. Jaded by my own struggles, I thought "Yeah, right!" as she talked about her plans. But she actually did it. Coached by Tom, she changed her diet and worked out daily at the gym. About six months ago, she finally got down to 128, looking wonderful and challenging Bob to a push-ups competition.

Even those who aren't gym regulars can enjoy the benefits of exercise.

I remember, some years ago, asking my Aunt Evelyn, who was then 76, if she had any arthritis pain. She smiled. "I've discovered something interesting," she said. "As long as I walk my three miles a day, I'm fine. But if I skip a day or two, I hurt so much, I can hardly get out of my chair. So keeping active keeps me ahead of my arthritic pain. If I were to give in to it, I really would be a granny stuck in her rocking chair!"

Keeping active, then, can help many of us to maintain our health and vigor well into old age. It can, in so many ways, be lifesaving.

My friend Tim, who hasn't exercised regularly, is planning a new regimen. Part of his motivation is the realization that he is one year past the age when his father and grandfather died of heart attacks and part of it has been the shock of seeing the huge list of deceased college classmates on our 45th reunion website. Still working a demanding and stressful job, Tim recently moved from the suburbs to a downtown Chicago condo. He is walking to work, starting to use the gym in his condo building and is taking up bicycling. As we make plans to attend our 45th class reunion in October, Tim and I have made a vow not to land on that dreaded class In Memoriam page anytime soon.

There are no guarantees, of course. No amount of gym time will make us look like those young, elite athletes. And no amount of exercise will keep us off the In Memoriam list forever. But enlisting our own inner Olympians to integrate exercise and activity into the routines of our lives can help to increase the quality of our days, adding immeasurably to the joy and vigor of the rest of our lives.


  1. Quite amazing, isn't it? I hope to be one of those people, too.

  2. I'm 54, healthy, and considered to be slim; however, there is a history of HBP and strokes in my family.

    I wasn't an athlete either, but I love being physical now. The love of outdoors and the hope that I won't have any heart issues are what keep me moving... oh, and three kids that I had in my late 30s and early 40s. lol

    Your examples - those fabulous people you mentioned - I hope to be them. And you can do it, too!

    I hope you'll Dance!

  3. Our bodies are meant to stretch and run, and carry weights, and do a lot of physical work. Our lives are so packed with responsibilities during our waking hours, with long commutes, job requirements, family responsibilities, that only a few people stick to a good exercise routine.

    Yes, indeed, we should have all invested in more exercise.

  4. I work out at least five days a week and I am addicted to it, in a good way. I love to challenge my body and push what I think are its limits. You have really hit on some truths here, and I'm glad you've also found the joys of exercise, as well!

  5. Exercise really can help a lot with debilating aging even when started late. I remember seeing an interview with a lady in her 80's who ran 5K races regularily. When she hit her mid 60's, she was suffering from arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes. She started just walking but eventually at 70 entered her first race. As I watched her interview, I saw a vital, happy, pain free person. Guess it is never too late.
    Think I will go for a walk right now.

  6. Move it or lose it. I think of my aunt who had terrible rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor said that there was only two small spots in her body without it - in the small of her back and behind her eyes. She told me of getting up at night and putting her hands in the freezer to stop the pain, but she never stopped moving. She danced around the house as she cleaned. She was a clean freak. She gardened. When she sat down, she crocheted. She said she had to keep the hands moving or they would freeze. She was such an inspiration. Thanks for reminding me of her today. Now, I must get going so we can walk later.

  7. Dear Kathy, this inspiring posting makes me want to walk every day, which I used to do in Minnesota until Meniere's hit. Since then--that's six years--I've done hardly any exercising. But now I've found a senior citizen center here in Independence with an air conditioned gym to walk in. So I've got my plans: joining Weight Watchers on Thursday with a goal of losing twenty pounds and walking!!! Thanks for helping me get motivated! Peace.

  8. I'm not sure I have an inner Olympian, but I know that I'd best get one if I'm to last and not have an In Memoriam on me! Thanks for the inspiration!

  9. Hi Dr. Kathy,
    I am the new follower of your most inspirational blog.
    I love to join wonderful blogs, like the one you created.
    Thank you for sharing your wisdom with the world!!
    God bless you, and those you love!!
    Poet Starry Dawn.

  10. Oh dear, this is an energetic post!

    Seriously though, I too feel much better with less weight to carry around; recently I've taken little exercise, but I will start my walking regimen again now that Benno is gone. He was too old in the end. I'm on my own here, Beloved is skinny and frail and no longer walks much, but I absolutely must make sure I don't get to join any 'In Memoriam' pages before my time.