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Physical fitness provides quality of life for seniors

West Kelowna
West Kelowna's Joyce Mulligan, 80, stays fit by riding her bike, going to the gym and cross country skiing.
— image credit: Warren Henderson/Capital News

When it came to realizing the benefits of daily exercise, it's safe to say Joyce Mulligan was years ahead of the curve.

In the 1970s, decades before cycling became a popular mode of transportation and recreation in the Okanagan, Mulligan would ride her bike to work as a registered nurse at Kelowna General Hospital.

From the Westside, across the old bridge and back, the 20-kilometre round trip provided her with both a sense of satisfaction and a means of keeping fit.

Throw in some camping, hiking and even some yoga, and Mulligan practised a well-rounded physically active lifestyle which wasn't at all prevalent four decades ago in North America, let alone Kelowna.

"That was really unusual, people just didn't do (biking and yoga) those things much back then, but I really liked to do them," said Mulligan. "I've always been pretty active and when I found I started doing it, I just kept going. It's been easy for me to continue that because I really enjoy all of it.

"I like being fit, it allows you to be strong and do so many things as you grow older."

And Mulligan hasn't slowed down one iota in the 40 years since those first treks across the bridge. Now an exceedingly fit 80-year-old, she regularly rides 120 km or more per week during the cycling season. When the bike is stowed away for the winter, Mulligan cross country skis three to five times a week at Telemark in West Kelowna.

With three to four visits to the gym per week and a little swimming mixed in, idle time is indeed a rarity for Joyce Mulligan.

With plenty of scientific research to already support the theory, it's no secret that regular exercise by people in their senior years generally leads to a longer and healthier life.

Often mistaken by others for a woman in her early 60s, Mulligan is living proof.

"My philosophy has always been, if you're going to be living on earth, you might as well be as strong and healthy as possible," she said. "I even remember as a child looking at some of my parents' friends and thinking, does it have to be that bad?

"When you see people living in misery, it's hard to understand why. Of course there are people that, through no fault of their own, do have health issues. But if not, living a strong, healthy life is there for people if they want it."

In addition to the physical benefits exercise provides, Mulligan knows firsthand the psychological plusses of regular activity.

Since the 1990s, she has been riding in groups with other like-minded people of varying ages and backgrounds.

"It's about comradeship, getting to know other people and supporting each other," she said. "It's just a great way to connect with people.

"I also find exerting your body makes you happier, those endorphins start flowing and you just have a more positive outlook. It's good for your mind, too."

One of her younger riding cohorts, Biggi Weischedel, considers herself lucky to have spent many hours on the roads with Mulligan over the past several years.

"She doesn't like to hear it, she's pretty modest, but Joyce is really an inspiration," said Weischedel, 43. "Most people can't believe she's as old as she is. She's still doing some good, long rides and it's nice to know that it's possible. It's fun to have her around, she's cheerful and good to be with. She proves there's no reason you can't do it. I hope I can be doing that, too."

From Mulligan's perspective, what may seem remarkable and exceptional to many others is simply a lifestyle choice and a daily passion.

"It's not amazing, and it's not that incredible," said Mulligan, who turned 80 on Friday. "It's just something I love to do and will keep doing for as long as I possibly can."

Good friend and fellow rider Geoff Sutherland understands full well the satisfaction and joy Mulligan derives from her physically active lifestyle.

Sutherland, 70, who enjoys cycling, hiking and cross country skiing, recently returned to Kelowna from a six-day, 600-kilometre bike trip of Vancouver Island.

For Sutherland, it all points to a better quality of life.

"If you're doing something active, you'll sleep better, your appetite is good, and it's inevitable you'll feel better," said Sutherland, who took up cycling eight years ago. "If I don't exercise for a week, I start to get aches and pains…aches and pains that don't need to be there.

"If you're older and not fit, it's a very limiting condition to be in."

Due in part to the large increase in the numbers of elderly people performing regular exercise, the image of a senior citizen has changed considerably over the last two to three decades.

Sutherland, who also enjoys the social aspect of exercise, assures that active seniors have never been more prevalent in the Okanagan.

"There are large numbers of seniors out there who are more fit than I am…cyclists, swimmers, runners," he said. "It's quite common to see old codgers out there doing things that people of all ages are doing. All it takes is the motivation to get involved.

"If I didn't have the physical side of my life, I know I'd be missing a lot."

•  •  •

Kelowna fitness instructor Roxanne Ray considers Joyce Mulligan and Geoff Sutherland as two shining examples of seniors who are getting the most out of life through physical fitness.

But even if elderly people can't devote as much time to exercise or aren't as motivated as people like Mulligan and Sutherland, Ray says there is hope.

She teaches group fitness to many people in their 60s to mid-80s who can still benefit from an hour of exercise, three to five days a week.

"For the most part (the people I work with) are wanting to be healthier and stronger, or at least maintain what they have now," said Ray. "There could be joint issues, other concerns they might have and you help them with that. They also have the socialization aspect, so between that and the movement it provides, it helps them feel better for the rest of the day."

Many seniors may also get moderate exercise from activities like pickle ball, lawn bowling or brisk walks and, while they are not as beneficial as an hour-long bike ride, run or swim, Ray said they still serve an important purpose.

"It can help them function better and be independent longer at home," she said. "Not all people are Joyces and Geoffs, but they can still improve their lives through exercise."

Still, Ray said through their actions, Mulligan and Sutherland continue to send a positive message to others in their 60s and beyond.

"For people like Joyce and Geoff, exercise is their play time," said Ray. "They inspire people by living with the saying: We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."

Ray teaches group fitness at the Parkinson Recreation Centre.

•  •  •

Recommended exercise for seniors (65+)

To achieve health benefits and improve functional abilities, adults aged 65 years and older should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more.

Alternatively, 75 minutes of rigorous exercise per week, such as running, swimming or cycling is also recommended.

It is also beneficial to add muscle and bone strengthening activities using major muscle groups, at least two days per week—legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms.

Those with poor mobility should perform physical activities to enhance balance and prevent falls.

More daily physical activity provides greater health benefits.

Sources: The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

 

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