Active Life Getting in shape? Start smart and slow

Getting in shape? Start smart and slow

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Raise your hand if you were outside and active all winter long despite the record cold and snow. OK, you two can turn to the next page.

For the rest of us baby boomers, getting back outside after a winter of relative inactivity – whether it is to bike, garden, hike, run, or golf – can seem a daunting task, sure to produce sore muscles and an assortment of aches and pains. Still, you can’t deny that Maine’s brief fling with summer is a glorious time of year – and worth the effort to enjoy in an active way.

Jo Dill, the director of the Maine Senior Games, for those over the age of 45, she says she often gets calls from older people who want to know how they can get in shape to compete in some of the myriad events offered each summer and fall. The Maine Senior Games, which include tennis, archery, pickleball, basketball, track and field, table tennis, cycling, racquetball, and swimming, go on for several weeks in August and September, but the competition kicked off in late May with the annual 5K race.

No matter which sport they may be interested in, Dill tells people to “start slow or you’re going to do some damage to your body. If you want to run a 5K (3.1 miles) race, you can’t just go out and run 5K.”

Dill, who was a physical education instructor before retiring several years ago, says her philosophy – even with students – is to “start smart.” Even though you are raring to go and your unused muscles feel pain free, she says, your body will betray you if you aren’t careful.

“You don’t go out and try for your best long jump of your life just because it’s the first nice day of spring. After being inactive, your muscle memory has all gone back to the way it was (before you got in shape).”

Jeff Eckhouse is a personal trainer and owner of Back Bay Fitness. His older clients range in age from 40 to 80-something. His website advises that balance, leg strength, core stability, and posture are important components to maintaining and building fitness in your later years. He emphasizes to his clients that stretching is an important part of getting yourself ready for any activity and that it is also important to spend time stretching after a workout. As people age, he says, it’s all the more important to keep your body from stiffening up.

“People have knee problems and they blame the joint. But for 99 percent of people, the knee wasn’t the problem,” he has said. “If you don’t do anything to reverse the stiffness, you’re going to start moving a little bit differently.”

Dill agrees that stretching is important, but again, she cautions people not to be too zealous about it. Dill plays basketball on a 65-plus team, which is now gearing up for the National Senior Games in Minneapolis in July. She says she picks up a basketball and shoots at the basket for 10-15 minutes before she stretches her calves and quads.

“You never want to stretch a cold muscle,” she says.

One thing older women especially must be concerned about is building or maintaining upper body strength, she says. While Dill’s team had some practices during the winter, she says they worked hard to maintain and build upper body strength when they couldn’t get together to play by doing a simple, but effective isometric exercise called planking.

“Planks are a great way to build core strength,” she says. “Study after study shows that, at our age, if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

Planks are so effective because they can work almost every main muscle, not just the abdominal muscles. The standard plank is the forearm plank, which involves lying face down with legs extended and elbows bent and directly under your shoulders. To get into the position, you tuck your toes, contract your abs, and support your weight with your forearms. You should be in a straight line from head to toes.

There are many variations to the standard plank, some of which involve lying on your side or raising yourself up and supporting yourself with your hands (as in a yoga pose downward dog). These variations can make planks a full-body workout, but again, starting slow is the key.

Now that her basketball team is practicing three times a week to get ready for Nationals, Dill says she still does planks almost every day, usually twice a day.

“I can hold it 30-45 seconds at a time,” she says. “Your core is pretty much key to everything.”

Some swear by Nordic walking – which involves using cross-country ski-like poles to propel you along as you walk. They say it is an upper-body-building tool that can turn your daily walk into a full-body workout. The poles are also helpful for those who are getting active again after surgery.

“They are incredible,” said Mary Ann Malloy, who used to own Healthy Body Fit Mind in South Portland and competed in track events at the Maine Senior Games for several years before moving to Florida. “Because you’re using your upper body, it solves that workout problem.”

Malloy said in an interview shortly after beginning to use the poles that it took her about five minutes to feel comfortable while she walked. (There are videos on YouTube to help visual learners). She compared the action of pumping your arms to that of milking a cow. Manufacturers of Nordic walking sticks suggest that the activity increases cardiovascular output by as much as 40 percent.

Whatever your fitness level and whatever activity you take up, the ever-so-fleeting summer months in Maine are a great excuse to get outside and start moving.

“You can put six older people in a lineup and tell just by looking (at their posture) the ones that work out,” says Dill. “As we get older, we have to keep moving.”

Joanne Lannin is an English teacher at Bonny Eagle High School and a freelance writer.

Jo Dill, the director of the Maine Senior Games, plays basketball on a 65-plus team, which is now gearing up for the National Senior Games in Minneapolis in July. Photo by Joanne Lannin

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