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Actively pursuing better health

Regular exercise does more than just keep you fit, medical experts say; it can help you prevent, delay or even treat an impressive number of ailments.


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“It certainly helps with the arthritis,” says Carrie Thomas, 85, of Cumberland Foreside, seen working out recently at Health Coaches Inc. in Portland under the guidance of personal trainer Mark Holmes. “But you really need to keep at it,” Thomas adds.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Twice a week, sisters Carrie Thomas and Sue Winn put on comfortable clothing and break a sweat.

Thomas, 85, of Cumberland Foreside, and Winn, 79, of Portland, work out together with a personal trainer, Mark Holmes, at Evolution Fitness in Portland.

Thomas, a retired businesswoman, started training with Holmes in her early 70s to improve her ability to cope with arthritis and maximize her recovery from knee replacement surgery. Her regimen includes riding a recumbent stationary bike, working with free weights and using step and weight machines.

“It certainly helps with the arthritis,” Thomas said. “But you really need to keep at it. The reality is, I’m lazy. If I have a specific time and place to do it each week, it helps me stick with it.”


Carrie Thomas 85, of Cumberland Foreside works out at Health Coaches Inc. in Portland

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer


Winn, a semiretired artist, soon joined her sister’s routine, rising above her natural instinct for inactivity. Her workout, tailored to improve her balance, includes the treadmill, chin-ups, squats and standing push-ups.

“I tend to sit home on the couch under a blanket with my two cats,” Winn said. “When I work out, I’m always glad that I finish and I’m always glad that I came, but it isn’t my favorite thing to do.”

Despite the obvious benefits of regular exercise, Thomas and Winn are in a minority of older Americans.

Only 31 percent of women age 65 to 74, and 39 percent of men in the same age bracket exercise regularly, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers decrease for adults age 75 and older, to 23 percent of men and 14 percent of women.

Staying active and exercising regularly can help prevent, delay or treat many diseases and disabilities, including arthritis, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, balance problems and walking difficulties, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Moreover, taking it easy can cause health problems. Inactive people are twice as likely to develop heart disease than those who are more active, according to a report from the U.S. Surgeon General. Being a couch potato also can lead to more doctor visits, more hospital stays and more medications for a variety of illnesses.

Both Thomas and Winn say working out helps them stay positive and keep medications to a minimum. They both notice a difference in their health, agility and energy level when they skip a few workouts.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer


Mary and Bill Phillips of Hudson walk along a path near the Penobscot River in Bangor. The couple make a point of walking at least 40 minutes every day as part of an overall healthy living routine.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer


Sue Winn 79, of Portland, works out on a treadmill at Health Coaches Inc. in Portland

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer


“It’s amazing how fast it goes and how fast it comes back,” Thomas said.

The sisters know they’re fortunate to have relatively good health and the means to pay for a personal trainer, which ranges from $40 for a shared session to $75 for an individual session. They view the expense as an investment in their longterm health and one of the best ways they could spend their time and money.

Holmes, who has a bachelor’s degree in health education with concentrations in human anatomy and exercise physiology, said he works with several older clients. Some meet with him occasionally to update their home training programs.

Holmes said it’s important for seniors to be as active as they can with a doctor’s approval. If they can’t afford a personal trainer, they can take a fitness class at a local community center or exercise with a friend or neighbor at home.

“You can make progress at any age, whenever you start,” Holmes said.

Having an exercise partner often helps people stick to a workout routine.

Mary and Bill Phillips of Hudson, near Old Town, exercise together and separately. Being physically active has become a habit for the couple, who make a point of walking at least 40 minutes per day.

“We never miss a day,” said Bill Phillips, 77, a retired English professor.

Mary Phillips is more cautious about her exercise routine because she has osteoporosis and fears falling. She practices t’ai chi, a slow-moving, low-stress martial art that’s known to improve balance and agility.

“You use tiny little muscles you never knew you had,” she said.

She’s sure weekly t’ai chi classes helped her weather a fall about a year ago that could have been disastrous. It happened when she was getting out of the tub and stepped on slippery tiles.

“I went right up in the air and came down on my hip,” she recalled. “I lay there and thought, ‘Nothing really hurts.’ I couldn’t believe it. I knew it was the t’ai chi.”

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