The following is a guest post by Susan Ito, a home health physical therapist who resides in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a writer and teaches writing in the MFA programs at Mills College and Bay Path University. Her work has been widely published in journals and anthologies and her website is www.susanito.com.
My mother is on the verge of her 93rd birthday, and she still goes bowling every Friday (with a bunch of her other 90 year-old friends). Her average score is way better than mine.
She and I have shared a home for the past 14 years, so I’ve had a close-up look at her habits. I’m also a home care physical therapist, and I’ve had the chance to compare and contrast her daily routines with many of my much younger, and much less able, patients. For years, I’ve studied this puzzle, I’ve taken continuing ed courses on fall prevention, balance and conditioning for seniors, and I’ve realized that there are many small details that can really add up to physical vitality late into life.
What does my mother do that many other seniors don’t?
She ties her shoes. This might not seem like much, but it’s been documented that people who bend down to tie their shoelaces have significantly better flexibility, balance and fine motor dexterity than people who slide their feet into a pair of backless slippers or (cough) Crocs.
She climbs stairs. Every day. We live in a multi-level home with no elevator. She climbs a minimum of ten flight of steps a day. It’s common for retirees to move into an environment that’s “easier” to navigate—a single level home, or a building with an elevator. But the physical act of climbing stairs, multiple times a day, gives the hip extensors (gluteal muscles) a powerful and necessary workout that doesn’t otherwise happen naturally. When the hip extensors get weak, it destabilizes the entire pelvic girdle, and falls occur much more frequently. There is no other naturally-occurring activity that keeps the hip extensors strong. Bridging, a yoga pose, can work, but most seniors don’t practice that on a regular basis. (It’s not as good as stair climbing, but it’s a decent substitute.) Stair climbing also provides some high-intensity interval training for the cardiovascular system.
She takes care of a dog. In addition to providing a source of loving companionship, our dog helps my mom stay fit in a number of ways. First, there are the necessary short but frequent walks. My mom can be kind of sedentary, but the dog walks give her multiple reasons to bend down to fasten the leash (manual dexterity, balance and having a flexible center of gravity), walk up and down the stairs to the street (see above), walk for half a block and bend down to pick up the dog poo (manual dexterity and balance again). She also picks up a heavy ceramic water dish from the kitchen floor, carries it across to the sink, fills it and sets it down on the floor again. This is an incredible feat of balance, core strength, and stability. If she outlives our old dog, we’re getting another one right away.
She bowls. This is her version of strength training. She uses the same 16 pound ball that she bowled with in her twenties. Hauling that massive orb off the rack, up to chest level, walking a few feet and letting it roll down the alley is quite a feat, and it’s a fantastic upper body, trunk and balance workout.
She takes a bath. My mother is Japanese-American, and for her, bathing in a bathtub is as essential as brushing her teeth. Getting in and out of the tub, even using wall railings, is the same skill as getting up and down from the floor. This is an essential task that is lost as we age. Even if you prefer showers to baths, make sure that you regularly practice getting down on the floor and then getting back up on your feet. It’s a complex choreography of controlled descent and ascent, flexibility and strength. Once, she got tangled in the dog’s leash and fell down in the middle of the street. I have no doubt that it was her bathtub skills (and the luck that she didn’t break any bones) that allowed her to get back on her feet on her own rather than needing help from 911.
She uses a cane. Over the past year, she’s gotten a bit more wobbly. Sometimes she needs an assistive device for safety. But instead of using a four-wheeled walker or a wheelchair, she uses a single-pointed cane. This provides her with just a touch of added balance, like reaching out with one finger and touching a counter or railing for support. If you overdo the support, you’ll lose necessary strength and balance. Don’t get overdependent on a walker unless you really need one.
She enjoys her daily ice cream. I’m not sure if this calcium bonus has really kept her from breaking any bones, but a mini cone after dinner every night has kept her satisfied and happy.
I’m not saying that every senior citizen needs to bowl, have a dog or live in a three-storied home. But it’s easy to see how people who never climb stairs, lift anything heavier than a teacup or bend down can quickly lose those abilities.
These are elements that have undoubtedly, in addition to good genes, contributed to her longevity and continued physical vigor. You wouldn’t catch her at a gym or even at an exercise class at the senior center. All of her physical fitness is purely functional. My mother is a living example of “lose it or use it.” She uses it all, every day, in ways that she’s not even aware of, but are keeping her going on through her nineties and maybe even beyond.
~ Susan Ito, PT
Foothills physical therapist Carol Wong and Susan Ito have been friends and colleagues since the 1980s while working on a committee for health rights in Central America. Their friendship has continued over the years and miles as Carol’s life brought her to New Hampshire.