Palo Alto Weekly

- March 1, 2013

Seniors: Finding ways to stay fit

Tai Chi, dance, water aerobics appeal to lifelong or new exercisers

by Chris Kenrick

On her 92nd birthday last month, Lucille Brown participated in an exercise class, decked herself out in black slacks, a fitted top and elegant scarf and went off to play bridge with friends.

"When I feel like I don't want to exercise I begin to realize it's exactly the time I should do it," said Brown, who has lived for the past two years at Moldaw Family Residences, adjacent to the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

"Even if the air feels a little cold, it restores your energy."

Brown, who counts Tai Chi and Feldenkrais among her practices, is among legions of local residents 65 and older who maintain exercise routines on a daily, or near daily basis.

At the Palo Alto Family YMCA on Ross Road, lobby traffic on a weekday morning is a mixture of young parents, toddlers and seniors, including more than a few who use walkers.

The Y reports that 14 percent of its membership consists of "active older adults 65 and over."

They can be found in the Y's regular classes or in classes specifically targeted at seniors, as well as on the exercise equipment, in the gym or on the climbing wall, said Wellness Director Diana Turner.

In a deep-water running class she takes at the YMCA, 74-year-old Sandra O'Neal reports that many participants have had joint replacements.

O'Neal herself, who still works part-time as a nurse-practitioner, has had both knees replaced and says she is "celebrating" the second anniversary of her third hip replacement.

Daily classes in Zumba or deep-water running — in which participants wear flotation belts to do various exercises in the water — keep her "fit and socialized," O'Neal said.

"It's a great way to start the day," she said Tuesday after emerging from the pool at 9 a.m.

"One of the best parts is to meet a whole other gang of grandmothers. We have costume contests at holidays, we help each other out outside of the pool — and a big part of our exercise day is to meet for coffee after, pretty much every day."

In informal interviews with the Weekly many — though not all — senior exercisers said they've been active in sports or other outdoor activities for years.

"I've always been active. I even played hockey when I was in bloomers in the first year of high school (at Dominican Convent in San Francisco)," said Brown, who played tennis into her mid-80s.

O'Neal took up belly dancing in the 1970s in San Francisco "when it was all the rage," and learned to play soccer at the age of 41.

"I always exercised, but this (deep-water class) is wonderful because it minimizes the weight bearing but increases my cardio and water resistance," she said.

Moldaw resident Liz Brownell, 81, has been a swimmer since the age of 7. Before she and her husband settled in Palo Alto two years ago, she swam at YMCAs or JCCs in New Jersey, Los Gatos and Cupertino.

These days Brownell logs 20 laps in the JCC pool four or five days a week, usually between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m.

"I alternate strokes, work on flexibility, focus on breathing and it helps to keep my knees strong," she said. "I enjoy getting out and moving.

"I tried the exercise thing, but I like to have the freedom to go when I want," she said.

Brownell does typically attend two balance or chair-yoga classes a week. "Balance is one of the main things I'm concerned about," she said.

She also makes an effort to walk or hike with her husband on a daily basis with destinations that include the Dish, the Baylands, the Stanford campus or Foothills Park.

"We don't always get out, but as my husband will say, 'Just walking around this (JCC) facility is a couple of miles.' Yesterday I went to the balance exercise class and he walked around the building."

YMCA exerciser Magen Gong-Jensen has loved to dance since her Mississippi childhood, even though she says her conservative mother tried to discourage it.

Gong-Jensen was widowed for the first time in her 20s with three young children. "From that moment I said, 'Life is short. I have to take better care of myself. I'm a widow and I have to make a living for us."

A serious fall down her office-building stairs in 1982 reminded her that, despite a demanding career in pharmaceutical sales, she needed to take time for herself.

Today Gong-Jensen does "something every day, six days a week" — usually some form of dance.

She also participates in annual dance performances staged by her son, Foothill College choreographer and dance instructor Bubba Gong.

Moldaw resident Elaine Desser said she has not been a lifelong exerciser but something — she's not sure what — induced her to join the YMCA in Pasadena for deep-water swim exercise when she got older.

"I felt as I advanced in age I needed to start exercising — something must've triggered it," she said.

A three-year resident of Moldaw, Desser now swims, lifts weights and does aerobics.

"If I'm being really honest with myself I probably work out twice a week," she said. "I would like to go more this year.

"Every time I go I feel healthier and I know I'm doing the right thing."

Got a story idea for Living Well, the Palo Alto Weekly's new monthly section devoted to the lives and lifestyles of older Palo Altans? Contact Living Well editor Chris Kenrick at ckenrick@paweekly.com or 650-223-6512.

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