By: Rebecca Chaplin
Can we become healthier as we age? I think so. Consider an expanded notion of health to be the integration of body, mind, and spirit. I notice that I become more integrated with each passing year. How about you? With this definition of health, we all have an increased chance for health as we age, regardless of our ‘health conditions.’
I interviewed women from their 30s to 100s who believe this too. A common thread among these women was that embodiment—through physical activity—was a key to feeling greater vitality, ease, clarity, and connection.
Renee Mastrangelo 33, serves as the director of the Lakeview Senior Center in Black Mountain. She knows that she is aging along with the seniors. I joined Renee and participants for their weekly Tuesday hike. Renee likes to hike, exercise with weights, practice yoga, and run. She said that being active helps her to “accept aging.” As we walked down the path with a group of eight seniors, her next statement made a lot of sense. “It’s also a great way for me to be social and involved in the community.” Renee’s fun-loving spirit is clear when she declares her message to other women, “Find the exercise that you enjoy. Don’t do any activity that you do not like.”
Sharon Bigger, 38, interacts with elders daily, both as a Registered Nurse with Hospice and as Expressive Arts Educator with Bloom Consulting. She enjoys power walking with her dog, cycling, yoga, and dance. When I asked her if she was interested in an interview as one in the 4th decade she said that although she is 38, she feels like 40. I was curious about this answer, so she explained, “Bring it on! I look forward to my 40s.” Sharon added, “This really is a new awareness. It’s because I am active that I feel good about aging. I have an affirming connection with women who are older than I am. Women are valuable at all ages.”
Sharon reiterates Renee’s perspective about being connected to community through physical activity in her statement, “I feel more connected to things and people around me when I am exercising. I hardly ever think of what I am doing as exercise and that makes it more fun! As I age, I am feeling more powerful in my body and I am in the best shape I have ever been in…I feel like I have more energy now than I did in my late 20s. Exercise also helps me to be mentally clearer. I figure things out and my brain works better on its own while I am moving.” This exemplifies the sacred synchronicity between the mind and body when in movement.
Sharon also brought forward the idea that exercise should be fun. Her message to other women, “Find a way to move that moves you. And do it. When I think about exercise, it does not sound appealing,” she said, “it sounds like a chore. But once I found [ways to move that I enjoyed] I looked forward to it and my body started to crave it… it feels a lot better than sitting on the couch!” Sharon and Renee are conscious of their aging and aware of the positive vitality that is available through being embodied.
Sajit Greene, Expressive Arts Therapist and owner of Soul Vision Consulting, is 54. Sajit stays active with activities that bring her pleasure such as dancing, hiking, walking the dog, having sex, and learning through practices like Alexander Technique.
Sajit boldly shares that her life has improved with increased physical activity. “When I was younger I was depressed and disconnected from my body. I’ve gotten more and more comfortable with my body as I have aged. It is not as if the aging process has done that. As I have matured, I have gained more body awareness and done a lot of inner work with body image and body hatred and studied body/mind practices. I’ve learned to use my body in a more efficient way with greater alignment. “I feel more alive and invigorated. When I move, it expands my sense of space and I feel more connected to the world around me. So there is definitely a spiritual component.”
Sajit speaks to the more subtle and perhaps most powerful benefit of being active with the statement, “My life force energy does not have an age. [Being active] helps me to get in touch with the ageless part of me. The physical body changes but the life force feels even more powerful than when I was younger. If I find myself thinking about the ways that I am changing physically, then I shift my energy to pay attention to my core energy which feels bright, alive, and ageless.” Her closing message to other women: “When we express that core energy—from the inside out, we are all beautiful. The power and beauty of life force energy radiates through and it transcends the physical appearance.”
Brenda Bagwell is also 54, and recently moved to Black Mountain from Florida. She hikes, exercises at Cheshire, does aerobics, and walks for transportation.
Brenda strikes an emotional cord when she says that “The best part [of being active] is psychological/ emotional well-being. Hiking and exercise are the highlights of my week! It is a key thing in my life. As I get older I have to do more to stay strong and keep my heart and bones strong.” Brenda reiterates that it is important to make exercise meaningful to YOU. “I love to do it in a group, because I will always push myself a little further in a group. I also like to exercise alone.”
A wise woman on the path, Brenda states, “It is never too late. Start small and just do it. The benefits are too large to disregard it. You don’t have to do it alone.”
Sandi Ratcliffe is 66. I could see the happiness in her face as she spoke about her recent retirement. Sandi appreciates Feldenkrais, tennis, and walking her dog. She includes 20 minutes of sit-ups and stretches five days a week.
Sandi glows brightly when she speaks to her preferred activity, walking her dog. “Having a dog is a wonderful thing. I have Rheumatoid Arthritis, so tennis may not always be an option—but walking will be. I see this as a very important part of getting older. I get a lot of exercise, especially when walking uphill. Another benefit of walking my dog is that I meet people. Having a dog and a regular walking schedule has made all the difference in the world. I’ve always worked really hard, but now I am retired and I have time!” I notice her positive view of retirement as a time for cultivating health. I love it!
Claudia Nix is 66 and owner of Liberty Bikes. Her humble, smart, and compassionate presence and her commitment to empowering physical activity among all ages inspire all who meet her. Claudia enjoys gardening, walking, hiking, bike riding, yoga, and stretching. She also used to teach dance.
Claudia explains that being physically active has helped her to “be fit and to recover more easily in the times I’ve been sick or gone through surgery. Being active has helped me to overcome things more quickly.” Like Sandi, Claudia speaks to the value of physical activity as a form of medicine. “Being physical was therapeutic as I recovered from breast surgery. It helped me to not concentrate on myself and how I felt. It helped me to transcend pain – as long as you don’t over do it…” Sound, wise advice! Claudia suggests starting where you are – no matter how small! “Just do it! Don’t care how small it is – start with crawling.” She shares a story of a woman who started with crawling and is now in great shape. “It’s never too late to start – and have fun!”
Jo Hall, 76 is another example of improved health and vitality with age. Jo is also committed to helping others through project EMMA. She leads exercise classes at dining sites across Buncombe County. A former employee of the YWCA in Asheville, Jo continues to enjoy water aerobics, pump, Silver Sneakers, and Silver Splash. “Exercise has helped me manage my diabetes. I have also lost weight and my joints are not as sore.” Yes! Jo is also getting healthier with age.
I met Doreen Plaisance at a Feldenkrais class at Asheville Movement Center. She proudly states her age as “one month shy of 81.” Doreen enjoys Feldenkrais, yoga, Pilates, aerobics, and weight lifting.
Doreen is a picture of vitality. She recognizes that the benefits to her are dual: “…physical as well as mental. I am able to play with grandchildren and to volunteer. I don’t want to get ‘old’. ‘Older’ – yes. ‘Old’ – no. I don’t feel well if I don’t exercise.”
Last, but certainly not least, is my friend Grace Goodell. Grace lives in Hendersonville and will be 103 in late August. She does pool therapy once a week and works her legs on a special machine for 20 minutes, five times a week. Laughing, she says she takes the weekend off.
Grace has led an active life. When she was younger she played golf because it made her “feel good.” “I feel it is necessary to keep active as long as I can — I want my son to join a gym,” she laughs. Grace gets to the core of the matter, saying, “I think that the most important thing is a good attitude. You have to think there will always be something good that comes of it. In the water, I am able to walk and that feels wonderful. Health is the big thing!” We talk about how she wants to bake an apple pie with the first apples from Hendersonville, and she gives me a great recipe for a chilled zucchini-apple soup. For a woman who cannot walk well, she sure does get around with astute mental, spiritual, and physical energy. When I asked Grace where I should take her picture, she said, “Can I sit here? What can I say, I’m lazy.” Once again she laughs, bubbling with vitality. Grace is hardly lazy. As we bring our conversation to a close she reminds me that I may live to be 100, too.
I have an idea — Let’s go ahead and age. Let’s create an aging revolution and be the most positive images of aging in the world. Let’s proudly own our age, health, and vitality. Let’s own our wisdom and continue to explore our wondrous bodies! Rather than wanting to hold onto the past or slow things down to stop the aging process — let’s go ahead and revel in the power and possibilities of now!
A tremendous well of vitality awaits as we discover our personal recipe for movement and we move with awareness. Fortunately we live in a place where this perspective is honored. Are you interested in expanding your experience of being physically active? Join us for one or more of the free events during Active Aging Week, September 25 – October 1. We are offering walks, health expos, education, and more. Events will take place in Buncombe, Madison, Henderson, and Transylvania counties. Expand your experience with Active Aging Week! Visit activeagingweekwnc.org or call me at 828-251-7438.
Rebecca Chaplin is committed to being a visionary of the new world with the honor of serving as an Aging Program Specialist with the Area Agency on Aging, at the Land-of-Sky Regional Council. She also maintains a private practice.