Ten years into retirement, Patricia Skidmore is still in awe of her ability to make change and lead an active life. Her outlook wasn’t always so hopeful. In her 50s, Skidmore, professor emeritus, Brescia College at the University of Western Ontario, was riddled with pain and resigned to hip replacement or back surgery.
“I thought I was headed for a wheelchair,” says Skidmore, who lives in London, ON. To compound her health woes, she discovered she had diabetes – a worrying diagnosis, but also the catalyst that spurred her to re-examine her lifestyle.
“My mother died slowly of diabetes and it took everything from her, one by one. By the time she died, she was blind, she was on kidney dialysis and she couldn’t feel anything (having lost sensation in her legs),” says Skidmore, who vowed to enjoy, not endure, her life. All the research pointed in the same direction – she had to get moving: “I could see that I would be sedentary if I didn’t do something.”
The science of movement
“Try aging successfully without movement. It doesn’t happen.” Colin Milner, the Vancouver-based founder of the International Council on Active Aging, has been repeating this mantra for more than 20 years.
“We have the mechanism within us to move, not to sit, not to lie down all the time. The hunters and gatherers, the way they survived was moving, chasing, and the same applies today.”
Recognized by the World Economic Forum as being “one of the most innovative and influential minds” on the planet when it comes to aging, Milner is inspired by his grandmother, now 106 years old.
“The research shows that between the ages of 35 and 75, we lose about 50 percent of our strength and 75 percent of our power if we are inactive,” says Milner. “That’s one of the reasons you see many people, as they get older, struggle to walk upright, because they are not strong. Their steps are farther apart and they are just not stable.”
Milner’s company is the epicentre of a global network spanning more than 35 countries and several thousand organizations, all striving to positively affect how people age.
“Any kind of movement is important,” he stresses. “Things like tai chi are great for balance. Dancing is fantastic for balance and your brain, because when you’re dancing you are having to think about all the moves you’re doing.”
Aging on the move
Three mornings a week from 6:45 to 8 am, a group of 20 men and women gather for an exercise class run by the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging (CCAA). Among them are teachers, office workers, police officers, business people and others.
Founded in 1989, the CCAA develops exercise and leadership programs for older adults, pairing cutting-edge research carried out by the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western with training fitness instructors to understand this demographic.
“Many of the instructors are older themselves. They really know their stuff,” says Skidmore, now in her 10th year of attending classes. “Every now and then they’ll change one of the exercises, have us do it differently because some research has come out and shown a better way.”
The class follows a routine: warm-up (5 minutes), cardio (30 minutes), weights (20 minutes), balance and stretching (15 minutes). All data, including progress, is charted.
Skidmore is now the poster child for positive movement. “I walk with no pain at all, and it used to hurt with a bad hip and a bad back. I sleep well because the back isn’t killing me,” she says, adding that her balance is better and she continues to enjoy gardening and horseback riding. “I’m very active, physically capable of doing what I want to do.”
Research on motion
“Physical activity is important for everyone, regardless of their health status,” says Dr. Michelle Porter, director of the Centre on Aging at the University of Manitoba.
“Earlier in adulthood, physical activity prevents many chronic diseases (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis) and is also important for good mental health,” says Dr. Porter. “Later in life, physical activity can be helpful for maintaining bone health, increasing muscle mass, strength, mobility, function and independence, as well as preventing falls and achieving good mental health.”
Ron Earnshaw knows firsthand how quickly the body can change when you stop moving. For 38 years, he was active as a police officer in Toronto and London, ON. “I never really did exercise on a structured basis [before I retired]. I would referee. I would play golf,” says the 65-year-old. “I found out after I retired that if I was to stay in shape, I’d better find some structured program.”
He now attends an exercise class five mornings a week. “My flexibility has improved. I had my annual physical and stress test recently. I increased by almost a minute on the treadmill. They have another reading on lung capacity and I increased that by 10 points, so it’s definitely working for me. I’m the lightest I’ve been in six years, according to my doctor.”
Movement is changing his body and his mind. “I feel like I’m going to last to 75, 85, 95. Already, I’ve outlived my father and his brothers. It has definitely given me a new, more positive outlook.”
The World Health Organization’s World Report on Ageing and Health, released in 2015, defines healthy aging as “the process of developing and maintaining the functional ability that enables well-being in older age.” It describes ‘functional ability’ as “the health-related attributes that enable people to be and do what they have reason to value, which includes their intrinsic capability as well as the environment they live in.”
To that end, it is important, according to Dr. Porter, “to emphasize that the type of activity often comes down to what someone will be able to do on an ongoing basis over the long term.”
It’s about movement and mobility, not necessarily tailored fitness instruction. Walking is the new wonder drug.
“As a society, we do not want to create barriers to being physically active,” says Dr. Porter. For those who have concerns or complicated medical histories, she adds that seeing a certified exercise professional is a good option.
From his perch atop the active aging industry, Milner sees four key trends. “It’s all about function, helping people remain functionally healthy – their physical, cognitive and social health. Another is technology: How is it going to help you keep that function? Wellness and health and movement are becoming part of the lifestyle. And finally, what are you personally interested in? I’m doing this because I enjoy it.”
After introducing movement into her life, Skidmore can check off all four boxes. “I really cherish [being able to move], and I never gave it a second thought when I was younger. It has kept me very fit and energetic, with a happy outlook.”
The ability to move and maintain an active lifestyle is often enabled, enhanced or wholly reliant on an assistive device. That’s Drive Medical’s wheelhouse – a New York-based global manufacturer of medical and mobility products.
“Our complete lineup of over 4,000 items is designed to enhance the quality of life of the people we touch,” says Kathy Sarafian, managing director for Drive Medical Canada, the company’s Ontario-based subsidiary, which sells directly to retailers.
Their products include, canes, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs, power scooters and rollators – four-wheeled walkers with brakes. Some rollators are customized, like the one owned by walker/runner Robert Hardy.
When a confluence of health challenges – cancer, hip replacement and two serious blood clots, the latter severely affecting his balance – sidelined Hardy from racing bicycles, he looked for solutions to stay mobile.
The 67-year-old Alexandria, ON resident uses Drive’s Hugo rollator, which has helped propel Hardy through more than a dozen marathons since he started race-walking in 2013. He participated in his first marathon at age 65.
“We are a unique industry in that (individuals), industry and government all have an aligned goal of keeping people at home as long as possible,” says Sarafian. “This makes our products a necessity. We are hoping people will start seeing these products as a way to live smarter and safer.”
Here’s 3 Ways to Get Moving
Strong to the core
Pilates is a low-impact, light-resistance, high-results method for building core strength (those deep abdominal muscles), which is essential for co-ordination and stability, whether you are recovering from an injury, walking or running a marathon. The focus is on small, controlled movements customized to your ability, making it perfect for beginners as well as seasoned athletes. Chances are there’s a Pilates studio in your neighbourhood. However, there are also several online options, including Gaia, where you can tailor your routine to your ability.
Helen Mirren likes variety
Dame Helen Mirren can rock a red bikini, but admits she’s not really a workout queen. Instead, she subscribes to Nintendo’s gaming system Wii Fit. “The Wii is fun, and it’s infinitely varied,” she says in a video for Wii Fit Plus, adding that in one session she can hula, jog, do yoga and more. The technology offers a personalized regime that covers everything from balance games to strength training and aerobics. “I find exercise is like meeting an old lover: You’re really pleased to see him and you get tired of him really quickly,” says Mirren. “With the Wii it’s like having a new lover every day.” Or, at least a new tailored at-home exercise program. “I prefer to exercise at home: You can wear what you like, you can look how you want to look and you can go from being a total beginner to quite an advanced stage,” says Mirren. “It was incredibly easy to set up, [though] I was severely intimidated by the thought of doing it.” Nintendo’s latest version is Wii Fit U.
Walk this way: Urban Poling
If sitting is the new smoking, then walking is the way to go. Now Urban Poling is bringing Canadians to their feet, with a line of high-performance Nordic walking and hiking poles designed for different workout levels. Hiking poles provide stability and take stress off knees and hips, making them popular with rehab patients and older adults. Nordic poles offer a more challenging workout – think of it as a hybrid of walking and cross-country skiing – prompting a fluid motion that involves almost every muscle in your body. Visit Urban Poling for more about high-performance Urban and ACTIVATOR poles. Poles are available at Wellwise by Shoppers Drug Mart and Shoppers Home Health Care stores.
Originally published in Issue 01 of YouAreUNLTD Magazine.