Active Seniors Share Secrets to a Long and Healthy Life

January 8, 2015 Providence Health Team

seniors_stretching_blogThey may be senior citizens, but Paul and Nancy Wegeman certainly aren’t slowing down. They’ve been married for 60 years. And, at ages 87 and 80 (respectively), they exude vitality. They are energetic and articulate, with a bounce to their step and a sparkle in their eyes.

“Paul’s an extraordinary man,” Nancy proudly said, “even now at the seasoned age of 87.” He stood thoughtfully beside her, sporting a US Olympic Team jacket. And, as it turns out, Paul is an Olympian. He competed in the Nordic combined event (ski jumping and an 18 kilometer cross country ski race) at the 1952 Olympic Winter Games in Oslo, Norway. 

It makes one wonder: what does it take to be like the Wegemans in our golden years? What makes them so dynamic? How can they move with such ease and grace? Is it genes, good luck or good living? They believe it’s a combination of those – and more.

We’re telling Paul and Nancy’s story about life’s challenges, aging and enjoying life in their twilight years. Enjoy Part 1 now and watch for Part 2 next week. 

Keep Moving 

Life is an endurance event. You’ve got to work for it. Paul is blessed with athletic genes – his father was also an Olympian. But that only gets him so far. A lot has to do with lifestyle – choice and action. 

Start young and never stop. His father encouraged physical activity at a very young age, and it stuck. Paul has exercised for as long as he can remember: “Hard and lots of it,” he professes. 

But, there were hiccups along the way. He suffered a broken neck in his 20s – the result of a ski jumping accident. The injury could easily have ended his career or squelched his desire to ski or jump again. Doctors credited his physical fitness with saving his life. And, it was his will that kept him going. 

Paul’s still an avid skier, admitting he’s as “aggressive and fast” as ever. He’s also religious about cardio, strength, balance and flexibility work. He attends group fitness classes every week and continued mountain biking well into his 80s. 

Discipline. Discipline is key. You have to exercise with a purpose – whether it’s heart health, weight loss or to beat your best sprint time. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy solitary power walks or a more formal fitness program, do it consistently – no excuses. 

Paul’s had two hernia operations, as well as shoulder, elbow and knee surgeries to repair injuries and worn joints. Follow-on therapy and workouts were sometimes painful and difficult. But, he knew his steady increase in activity would pay off over time. 

And it has. Like many seniors, Paul also deals with arthritis throughout his body. But, he says, “Consistent workouts and an active lifestyle keep me limber – and mobile.” 

Aerobic training. Brisk walking, running, hiking, biking and swimming – they all offer excellent cardio training. Do it three or four days a week, and you’ll see some major changes:

  • A stronger heart
  • Improved blood flow
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Improved cholesterol levels
  • Better physique
  • Endorphin release to lift your mood
  • Increased endurance 

Paul’s had two heart surgeries to replace a defective aortic valve. It was touch-and-go the second time around. Now, he uses a heart rate monitor during workouts to make sure his heart rate is within a safe range and to ensure he gets an effective workout. He maintains 150 beats per minute for his 30-minute aerobic workout. That’s in the target range for a person about a third his age. 

Strength training. Lifting weights builds muscle, increases metabolism and stimulates bone growth. Without regular, moderate-intensity resistance workouts, you lose up to five pounds of muscle each decade of your life. 

We’re not talking about training to be a body-builder here, just sustaining good muscle tone – so you can enjoy an active life. Ladies, you have less muscle tissue and lower testosterone levels than men, so you needn’t worry that moderate lifting will make you too bulky. Also, regular, brisk walking (on a long-term basis) is considered a moderate weight-bearing activity, especially effective in averting age-related bone loss. 

In fact, Nancy credits her physical fitness to walking and being active. She’s suffered from scoliosis (curvature of the spine) her whole life. And, with age, has developed spinal sclerosis (hardening of the spinal cord and vertebrae) and arthritis. But, she doesn’t let the aches and pains cut into her daily activities. “A body in motion helps keep joints flexible and lessens stiffness,” she maintains. 

Eat Well. Drink Well. 

Paul and Nancy work hard to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, even today, Paul is within a pound or two of his high school weight. “We split our meals when we go out,” says Nancy. 

Paul adds, “You have to watch the volume and calories. It’s about portion control.” A long, healthy life is a balancing act. So, eat well and drink well – but, in moderation. 

The good. You can pretty much eat all the fresh fruits, vegetables and fish (not deep fried) you want, and feel good doing it. Enjoy nutritious foods in their whole form, to get the most benefit from calories consumed. 

The Wegemans regularly eat high-fiber, low-calorie whole grains (like steel cut oatmeal and brown rice), beans and legumes and produce of all colors. They get quality protein from eggs, nuts, low-fat dairy products and lean meats. And, they use healthy plant-based oils (like olive or grape seed) more than butter or margarine, which are high in saturated or trans fats. 

They are aware that healthful eating strengthens their bodies and gives them the energy they need to get through the especially tough times. And, life has surely handed the Wegemans their fair share of ailments. 

Nancy survived breast cancer in her mid-50s. Paul made it through a near-fatal infection caused by a perforated bowel. And, he then weathered a rare lung condition (Bronchiolitis Obliterans with Organizing Pneumonia) that inflamed his airways. 

Having triumphed over so many health challenges, they are more mindful than ever of the foods they eat – and avoid. 

The bad. Ditch the fast food and processed snacks – they offer little nutritional value. And watch the carbs, red meats, sugars and excess alcohol. Fried foods and desserts filled with sugar and fat lead to extra weight, clogged arteries and, often, a shorter life. 

The drink. The Wegemans have never been big drinkers. That’s not to say they don’t enjoy an occasional glass of wine with dinner or a beer on a summer day. Alcohol in moderation isn’t bad for you. In fact, many scientific studies even tout its health benefits. 

A glass or two a day of wine, beer or alcohol reduces your risk of heart attack and stroke, and lowers cholesterol. On the other hand, heavy drinking raises blood pressure and increases your risk of developing diabetes, pancreatitis, liver disease, some forms of cancer and severe dementia. 

Supplements. Many of the nutrients your body requires are found in the wholesome foods you eat. But sometimes, supplements are helpful – even necessary – to give you the best odds at a long life. Paul and Nancy take a daily multi-vitamin, plus calcium for bones, glucosamine for joints, fish or krill oil for heart health and proper cell function and a dose of vitamin D. Check with your primary care provider to determine whether vitamins or other supplements may benefit your health. 

There's More

Read Part 2 of Paul and Nancy's story to learn more about how they're living life to the fullest.

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