92 Years Fit

92 Years Fit

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body!

92 Years Fit

I am ninety-two years old, oddly free of aches or pains. I tip the scales at the same weight — 127 — I did when I married my husband Sieg sixty-eight years ago. But in the decades between, my weight has changed hugely — once too much, once too little — and I have a figure problem that still makes me work daily to keep it under control.

The problem began in 1952 when I was thirty-two. Living in a small town in upstate New York, we already had two daughters not yet in kindergarten, and were expecting twins.

On the sizzling August day our boys arrived, I checked into the hospital at 172, a gain of forty-five pounds during a full-term pregnancy. I stuck out so far in front I could balance a shampoo bottle atop my bulge. Our twins’ combined birth weight — just under fourteen pounds — subtracted a welcome load but I was left waddling around with extra fat and a sagging abdomen that persisted.

Of course some of my weight began to drop since, except for nighttime sleeping, I had to be on my feet almost non-stop. As a stay-at-home mom of four kids under five and a half, I cooked, cleaned, washed, ironed (in those pre-wash ’n wear days), ran errands, and cared for our lively brood. Summers, I tended a garden to help put food on our table.

Necessity made us follow a sensible diet leaning toward plenty of fruits and vegetables with limited amounts of fish and chicken. On my husband’s slim elementary school teaching salary, our budget seldom allowed costly items like steak or sweets.

Despite this natural trimming down, and later years when we did a lot of walking, bicycling, swimming, my middle stubbornly kept its post-babies bulge.

Fast forward to 1980, the year I turned sixty. Our children were grown, busy with their lives. By this time my husband and I both had good teaching jobs, with a semester’s paid leave ahead when we could do anything we wanted. We thought it would be great to hunt for a very different experience abroad.

This was the time when Hmong refugees, trying to escape war in their native Laos, were pouring across the Mekong River into temporary camps in northern Thailand. Volunteers were needed to teach English. We applied, and were accepted.

On a snow-packed January day, we flew from Iowa, where we lived, to the West Coast. After a trans-Pacific flight, and a long wearying bus trip north of Bangkok, we settled to work in a hot, dry, primitive camp called Ban Vinai. It proved a fascinating, rich plunge into an exotic other world. But the challenge had just begun. We had no facilities to cook for ourselves. There was no grocery in camp, just one open-air fruit and bread market and one less-than-appetizing restaurant open only at lunchtime. Squadrons of flies buzzed both places. All volunteers had been given two warnings if we wanted to avoid amoebic dysentery, a very nasty tropical disease — NEVER buy raw food from that market; eat only cooked meals in the restaurant.

We did our best to shop by bus once a week at a tiny village twenty miles away, but little food was available there. Literally starving, both of us lost a fifth of our body weight in just nine weeks. The day I felt so weak I could no longer stand up to teach and instead crouched on my heels before class, Sieg said, “We’ve got to cut and run before they carry us out of here in a wheelbarrow.”

We hated to walk out on our responsibilities, but back to the U.S. we flew. During a brief airport stop in San Francisco, we each indulged in a huge raw vegetable salad and a double chocolate milkshake — which left me faintly nauseated.

At home, my bathroom scale said I weighed 100 pounds. There was now so little padding on my spine I couldn’t bear to lie down in the bathtub. It took months of slow restrained eating to regain our normal weight and strength. During that time we made an interesting discovery: our stomachs had shrunk so much that very small portions satisfied us without hunger pangs. But I was dismayed that despite my extreme weight loss, despite the passage of twenty-eight years since the twins’ birth, I still had pudgy, saggy-baggy skin amidships.

For several reasons including cost, I wasn’t willing to put myself under the knife for a tummy tuck. Was there anything else that might possibly help this annoying condition?

A newspaper notice caught my frustrated eye. Our local hospital was offering a beginning hatha yoga course. Hmm, I thought. If I froze into one of their pretzel positions, or some day in class fell from a tree pose and broke a limb, a hospital would have first aid handy. I enrolled.

Nothing horrible happened. Quite the opposite. The course not only helped firm my abdomen. It brought me a marked improvement in flexibility, and new techniques of deep breathing that eased me later through two cataract operations. Best of all, it gave me a lasting sense of body control from my middle. It made me feel as if I were standing taller, able to move with a bit more grace. That first yoga course turned me into a strong supporter of formal exercise classes, especially past fifty.

Now I live with my husband in an independent apartment in a retirement complex that offers residents a wide range of free fitness programs.

This has let me keep up yoga, try a year of t’ai chi and four months of Zumba Gold (these are mostly Latin-American dance steps, done individually, and tailored to senior participants). I’m also currently taking two Pilates classes a week — one on floor mats, one in the water. Both work on core strength and balance, but I’ve found “planks” — those extended body stretches — are far easier in water than on land.

Fortunate genes, an always-moderate diet (our five grandchildren laugh because we habitually get eight servings from one doughnut), and regular exercise combine to keep my weight steady, joints flexible, my middle firmed. This means I can still wear favorite old clothes from twenty years ago.

Since I have no knee or back problems, I plant and tend long areas of flower gardens outside our door every spring and summer in comfort and pleasure — so far.

Although too polite to say “at your age,” younger friends often ask me, “How on earth do you manage to stay in such good shape?”

“There’s no secret,” I tell them. “It’s simple. D for Diet and E for Exercise adds up to D-E-LIGHT.”

~ Lois Muehl ~

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