Senior centers promoting nutrition, exercise as keys to longer life


By Brian Goslow


At age 67, Nancy Mathews of Woburn has become something of a watchdog when she goes out to eat with friends. Concerned with potential health effects, she has found herself observing the food her friends are eating. “I hate it when they reach for the cake,” Mathews said. “I’ll ask them, ‘Do you really want to eat that?’”

Health-oriented education programs she attended at the Woburn Senior Center and Lahey Clinic inspired her health-conscious advocacy. “I’m much more aware of salt and sugar and their connection with diabetes and blood pressure now,” she said. “I don’t have it (either condition), thank God.”

While “everything has a little salt,” Mathews, whose home hasn’t had salt, pepper or sugar on its dining table since the early 1980s, has found ways to reduce her intake of the three substances through the programs. That included switching to a low-sodium whole-wheat cracker she first sampled at the Lahey Clinic. “I’ve since brought them and introduced them to people at the senior center in Woburn,” she said. “They like them, but I don’t know if they buy them for themselves.”

More and more health-oriented programs, both educational and exercise in nature, are finding their way onto senior center calendars. Jessy McNeil, a registered dietician for Salter HealthCare, has presented programs on “Bone Health and Nutrition,” “Heart Healthy Food,” “Diabetic Diet Simplified,” “How to Read Food Labels and Recipe Substitutions” and “Can Vitamins, Minerals and Herbal Supplements Be Beneficial?” Salter HealthCare regularly sponsors health programs at senior centers in Arlington, Lexington, Woburn, Medford, Winchester and Burlington.

“Bone health and nutrition go hand in hand,” McNeil said. “As our bodies age, it’s extra crucial for balance and strength. That extra exercise and body toning in your 60s will help you in your 70s when they (doctors) tell you to do some more. You prepare yourself by keeping your weight in check.”

As people age, they often gain weight, which contributes to the wearing out of their joints, which will then make it tougher to do housework and gardening; diabetes and other diseases also tend to creep in during a person’s 70s and 80s. “That’s the way it is, as you get older,” McNeil said. “You know it’s going to happen, just don’t let it go (your weight) into the extreme.” Exercise and healthier eating will help prevent excessive weight gain.

McNeil tells her attendees of her programs to take control of what they put into their bodies. “It’s not just getting your annual checkup — you need the whole package of attitude,” she said. “I get them reading food labels during shopping trips and try to convince them to eat produce grown by local farmers, which they can get at local farmers’ markets, especially in the late spring, summer and fall. They’ll get fresh, valuable vitamins that haven’t been frozen.”

She recommends getting five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “I have participants focus on having 25 to 30 grams of fiber per day,” McNeil said. Fresh fruit — an orange or an apple — has 3 to 5 grams of fiber. Salads, beans and carrots are also good sources of fiber.”

Reducing fat intake is another area McNeil emphasizes in guiding seniors to better health. “Most of my participants with cardiac issues are trying to cut back,” she said. “In an average day, you should have 40 grams of fat. A piece of a fried chicken breast is 20 grams; a rotisserie-cooked chicken breast is 6 grams.” Substituting a McDonalds Grilled Chicken Sandwich for a McDonalds Quarter Pounder with Cheese, will significantly reduce your day’s fat intake — and leave room to feel less guilty about your side order selections.

The best way to work on your health will always be exercise. Bone health, flexibility and muscle strength are all important health parameters, especially with regard to fall prevention. Dr. Steven Chang, staff physician with Kosmix RightHealth and a family medicine practitioner at the University of California Davis Medical Center, said falls are the primary cause of accidental death in the elderly and account for over 90 percent of hip fractures, which cause significant morbidity.

“Participating in regular exercises that emphasize muscle tone, balance and flexibility is a must,” Chang said. “Weight bearing exercises and a healthy diet will contribute to bone health, which reduces the risk of osteoporosis as well. Failure to exercise regularly results in poor muscle tone, decreased strength and loss of bone mass and flexibility.”

Steven Levesque, owner of Fitness Your Weigh in Groton, has presented programs at the town’s senior center on staying strong in the latter years. Customers at his business location are put through “boot camp,” one-hour classes with cardiovascular conditioning, full body strength and flexibility training.

But people shouldn’t be deterred by the thought of a tough military-like structure. Levesque runs his programs so that each person works to his or her own ability. One class has a 20-year-old that exercises next to a 67-year-old. ‘The biggest age group I have is the 50s and 60s, plenty in their 70s, some in their 80s and a 93-year old,” he said.

There’s an instant payoff for improved strength. “Many people 50 and older never attended aerobics or have been a walker or swimmer. Holding a stretch for 30 seconds or a minute can seem like an eternity but you feel so much better afterwards,” Levesque said. “When they get home, they run after their grandchildren who then see the benefits of staying stronger themselves.”

Levesque focuses on improving his program participants’ bone, muscle and joint strength. “Like others things, if you don’t use it, you lose it,” he said. “If you don’t do any stretching, you lose their flexibility. If you don’t pay attention to your balance, you start to lose your balance.”

He suggests a few ways to improve balance in the comfort of home. “You can do something even as simple as standing on one foot with a chair or tabletop near by,” Levesque said. “Time yourself to see how long you’re able to stay up and work to strengthen your weaker leg. Work on it daily, adding five or 10 seconds at a time. You can do it while you’re washing the dishes.” Another exercise is pretend tightrope walking, with one foot going directly in front of the other.

Regardless of age, no one is ever too old to begin something new, especially something that’s going to be beneficial in the years ahead, Levesque said. And it will benefit others as well. “People are seeing their parents still alive and active in their 70s and 80s and see they have their minds and physical strength, which gives them a better general awareness of the benefits of exercising and eating healthier,” he said.