This 82-year-old grandmother may knit and bake cookies—but she also does yoga. Jacqueline Lassen attends a weekly class at Wayne Presbyterian Church, plus aerobics four times a week. Grandfathers around here are surprisingly active, too. Raymond Tobey, age 80, hikes the trail at the Willows in Radnor, pumps iron at the Wayne Senior Center and swims laps in Villanova University’s pool.
At the Main Line YMCA in Ardmore, Loretta Rambert, 75, teaches an Arthritis Foundation aquatic program. Her favorite part is the Funky Chicken. With Rambert supervising, those in the pool peck with their arms, flap their wings, then move their rear ends from side to side, repeating each movement four times. “You have to shake your butt,” Rambert says. “It’s the most fun part.”
Rambert, Lassen and Tobey are part of a growing corps of senior fitness enthusiasts. Some, like Tobey, are continuing a life-long love of exercise. Others, like Lassen and Rambert, have embraced physical activity later in life and under doctors’ orders.
“I have arthritis, and my rheumatologist suggested that water therapy would help me,” says Rambert. “I found the Main Line Y’s class. Back then, it was called ‘Hinges and Twinges,’ which is just awful. But I started coming. I did feel some improvement, so I kept at it.”
That was 29 years ago. Rambert got certified by the Arthritis Foundation to lead the class and teaches it twice a week. “Knees, hips, elbows, whatever,” she says. “The warm water helps everything—I can do exercises that I couldn’t do on land. Our bodies have more buoyancy in water. It provides natural resistance that works our muscles without straining them.”
Other anti-arthritis pool programs are held at the YMCA of the Upper Main Line in Berwyn, which also has aqua tai chi. Regular tai chi is also great exercise for older bodies. “When I started here 20 years ago, we had maybe 30 people every day,” says Susan Shapiro, executive director of the Wayne Senior Center, which serves Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties. “Now, it can be anywhere from 50 to 100 people. That’s not all related to exercise, but it’s a lot of it.
“Exercise helps with two things that most older people are afraid of: falling and cognitive decline,” Shapiro says. “And although everyone knows that is part of the purpose, we don’t position exercise as a thing that people have to do. We make it fun. We have a wide variety of classes that are on the cutting-edge of fitness and turn exercise into something people want to do.”
The physical benefits of exercise are many. “Joint movement, weight loss, cardiovascular improvements,” says Mary Francis Reilly, executive director of Main Line YMCA. “And there are just as many mental benefits.”
Research backs Reilly’s statement. In 2011, Brown University’s Alpert Medical School and the University of Illinois showed that aerobic exercise three times per week increases the levels of BDNF, a protein in the brain that regenerates the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories.
Elsewhere, a study run by the Boston University School of Medicine, New York Medical College and Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons reported that seniors who did yoga altered their levels of gamma amino-butyric acid, which is connected to stress-related illnesses like depression, anxiety and high blood pressure. UCLA’s Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences showed that tai chi has many of the same effects.
“I absolutely believe that there is a mind-body connection,” says Shapiro. “If nothing else, doing things like yoga and tai chi proves that you can—and that’s empowering.”
Regular exercise is new for Lassen. “If you told me 20 or 30 years ago that I would do yoga and love it, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she admits.
Lassen’s activities were limited to recreational swimming and tennis for most of her life. Then she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 75. “The doctor said exercise would help control the diabetes—and it certainly has,” she says. “And if I’d known how much I enjoy exercise, I’d have done more of it over the years. I encourage other older folks to get out there and find what works for them. It’s use it or lose it, right?”
Lassen is using it so much that she won the women’s 2012 Fitness Award from the Wayne Senior Center. The male award went to Tobey. His fitness routine would put to shame someone half his age. “I do the weightlifting machines and the treadmill at the center three times a week. And four times per week, I walk the track at Haverford College or hike with a buddy,” says Tobey. “At least four times a week, I do laps in the pool at Villanova.”
Tobey gets his swimming in via the Friends of Villanova program. For a $25 annual fee, Radnor Township residents can access the university’s pool, fitness centers and outdoor tracks. “We don’t have classes specifically for seniors,” says Lisa Harris, Villanova’s director of intramurals and recreation. “But many township residents choose to take advantage of the program and use our state-of-the-art facilities.”
Senior who are residents of townships throughout Montgomery, Delaware and Chester counties can access facilities at recreations centers, high schools and senior centers—either for free or for minimal fees. Programs and costs vary by township.
“There are things that are not terrible about being older—and getting discounts is one of them,” says Tobey.
A medical doctor before he retired, Tobey is well aware of the benefits of exercise. But he does it because he enjoys it.
“I turned 80 in February, but I say that I’m barely into my 70s,” he says. “This winter, I’ll be skiing with my grandchildren—if they can keep up with me.”