Joanna Hildebrant’s Fitbit chirps as she saunters along. The 96-year-old with bright eyes and an easy smile tries to walk 4,000 to 5,000 steps each day—and she is well on her way this warm and sunny summer afternoon.
Before moving to Santa Cruz 14 years ago, Hildebrant led a life of service, working with orphans on the streets of Mexico City. The spry and active senior is currently a resident of Dominican Oaks, an upscale independent living facility in Live Oak. Her goal is to live to 100.
“Moving is key to remaining fit. I really feel that movement is the most important thing for senior citizens,” says Hildebrant. “Nobody is too old to exercise.”
For six years, Hildebrant has risen at 5:30 in the morning, five days a week, to swim laps, stretch, and exercise at Simpkins Swim Center. An admitted morning person, she drives herself to the pool, where her body is in constant motion.
“My body is never still for the hours I’m at the pool,” says Hildebrant proudly. “I’m constantly active. I walk for 20 minutes, then do leg exercises at the edge of the pool for 20 minutes. Finally, I swim and move my body for 20 minutes. This, and eating right, just makes me feel healthy.”
After a light breakfast of cereal and fruit, and a brief walk, Hildebrant attends Tai Chi, Mindfulness and Qi Gong classes during the day. The combination of physical and mental exercise gives her an inner peace, calmness and clarity that makes her life easy and enjoyable.
“Some people have limitations, but they can always do certain things,” she maintains. “A positive attitude is key.”
Debra Routly, the executive director of Dominican Oaks, worked in high-tech before studying health and fitness, and eventually becoming a personal trainer. She says that one of her main focuses at Dominican Oaks is the fitness of active seniors.
“Our seniors aren’t just sitting around knitting,” she says. “They’re vibrant. And it’s not just about physical activity any more. Mental exercises keep them sharp, alert and full of life.”
Routly offers her residents daily balance exercises, strength training, stretching, yoga, Zumba, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi classes. In addition, she helps them take advantage of the long list of PEP classes offered through Dignity Health and Dominican Hospital. A team of drivers shuttles a devoted contingent of seniors to Simpkins Swim Center and area gyms every day of the week.
“Fitness classes are so important. A lot of our residents go to them every morning,” says Routly. “Most people will have breakfast and go straight to their exercise class. It’s necessary for them to maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle. More than 70% of our residents attend a class on a regular basis.”
As the world’s population gets older—one-fifth of the population of the developed world was 60 or older in 2000, and by 2050 this number is expected to rise to a full one-third —it’s more important than ever to develop effective fitness programs for seniors.
Regular exercise can lead to improvements in some of the greatest challenges older adults face: Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
Just a small amount of exercise will release endorphins that enhance a senior’s mood and lead to a decrease in anxiety and depression.
Champion ballroom dancer Beverly Martin describes herself as a “happy, fit and healthy 82-year-old.” The native Santa Cruzan has been dancing competitively with her 84-year-old husband Gene for more than eight years, attending five two-hour dance classes every week at the Palomar Ballroom in downtown Santa Cruz.
“A lot of people can’t believe that my husband Gene and I are still ballroom dancing, and are able to move like we do,” says Martin. “If you’re a person who really loves what you do, though—like we do—the regular aches and pains don’t bother you much. You just feel happier, and you feel no pain because you love doing it. It’s magical.”
Martin knows that most men and women her age don’t get enough exercise. When they stop moving, their bodies gradually lose their viscosity and flexibility as tendons shrink and become tighter.
“If you are scared about getting older, something is bothering you, or you just are feeling sad, exercise—dancing, specifically—will take it all away,” says Martin. “You just want to dance. Once you start to move, the energy starts to flow throughout your body. Your entire body and your mind. It carries you throughout the day. Seniors need that.”
Martin’s dance guru, 46-year-old Zak Bauman, has been teaching senior citizens the art of dance for the past 22 years. A former professional modern dancer, Bauman tells me that her daily classes provide elderly adults far more than exercise: there’s also a huge social component. Her class draws 12-18 regulars five days a week, and “everything they do revolves around their dance schedule,” she says.
Several studies have shown that ballroom dance is a highly effective tool to ward off Alzheimer’s because it involves three key components: social, physical and intellectual stimulation.
“If you don’t use it you’re going to lose it,” Bauman tells me. “Balance, fitness, cognitive sharpness. There’s a huge mental component to social dancing. Anyone can do it at any age. The first and hardest thing is just walking through the door.”
Routly also urges patience in finding the right workout.
“Exercise needs to be something that doesn’t overwhelm us,” she says. “It’s not a one-shoe-fits-all thing. Some people can do vigorous exercise and others shouldn’t. It’s personal and with safety in mind. You want to start slow and take it easy. Condition your body before you go gung-ho into it.”
‘DON’T BE A NINNY’
Sitting on a plush couch surrounded by walls decorated with plaques, pictures and awards, another Dominican Oaks resident gives me the lowdown on how seniors can maintain a healthy and happy lifestyle.
“Exercise! Just do it. Never look back. Always look forward,” says 101-year-old Faye Alexander. “And always have a positive attitude.”
The vivacious and energetic Alexander played golf at Pasatiempo for 68 years, and has been attending regular water aerobics classes at Simpkins Swim Center for nearly 25.
“For me, with water aerobics, it’s like feeling I’m heading back into the embryonic sack. I’m reborn,” she says. “I can do things that I just can’t do out of the water. It keeps me going. I’m 101, but I feel young all the time.”
Exercise makes Alexander feel physically and mentally alive, and has enhanced her social life immensely. She’s quick and witty as she explains the stories behind the smiling faces in her many framed photos.
“Fitness gives seniors like me new life. If you just sit and stare into space, you’re going to be a ninny,” says Alexander with a wise smile. “Don’t be a ninny.”