Susan Henderson of South Portland walks her dog, Serenia, at Bug Light Park on Friday. With her gym closed during the coronavirus pandemic, she makes sure she gets out once or twice a day. “It normalizes my day, even in the best of times,” said Henderson, 78. “But now it’s about moving my body and staying as healthy as I can during this difficult time.” Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Susan Henderson knows the value of regular exercise.

A retired nursing professor and South Portland city councilor, she’s had a gym membership for years. She’s aware of the cardiovascular, weight-control and other health benefits of working out at any age, especially for people over age 50. She and her late husband, Scott Hatch, used to go together.

But her gym has been closed during the coronavirus pandemic, so Henderson is making sure she gets out of the house once or twice each day to take her dog, Serenia, for a rigorous walk.

“Getting outdoors has always been a coping mechanism for me,” said Henderson, 78. “It normalizes my day, even in the best of times. But now it’s about moving my body and staying as healthy as I can during this difficult time.”

Many older Mainers are staying home to avoid contracting COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. And with good reason.

Older people and individuals with underlying health issues such as heart, lung or liver disease and diabetes, are considered especially vulnerable to the virus; 658 of 1,040 confirmed cases in Maine (63 percent) and all 51 deaths here have been among people age 50 and older.

Inactivity and isolation are a double whammy that can cause or worsen physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, arthritis, depression and anxiety. Conversely, even modest regular exercise can help reduce health complaints and improve a person’s ability to cope during a stress-inducing pandemic.

Susan Henderson walks with her dog every day in various locations in South Portland. She says it’s proving to have significant mental health benefits during the pandemic. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“Whether you do it indoors or outdoors, get your body moving,” said Marilyn Gugliucci, professor and director of geriatrics research at the University of New England’s medical school.

For people with mobility issues, Gugliucci recommended exercises that can be done sitting or standing with stationary support, such as a chair or railing. For others, she suggested workouts that can be done without risking injury at a time when seeking medical care can be challenging.

“Do what you can. Exercise with intention,” Gugliucci said. “If you’re sitting at home, start with knee lifts. Work from head to toe. Go through the full range of motion.”

A variety of fitness instruction videos and programs for in-home workouts is available on TV and online. Henderson took an online strength and balance class offered by her gym. Maine Public television airs yoga or stretch classes daily at 6:30 a.m.

During the pandemic, Hannah LeBlanc, a fitness specialist with UNE’s Exercise and Conditioning for Easier Living (U-ExCEL) program for older adults, has produced several free workout videos that are posted on YouTube and shared through the Maine Council on Aging’s COVID-19 information updates.

LeBlanc’s videos build on previous Balancing Act videos that also were produced for the U-ExCEL program and feature Gugliucci demonstrating the exercises.

LeBlanc demonstrates and explains the exercises in her videos, including Strength and Balance, which increases core, upper- and lower-body strength; Sit and Fit, which improves all-over strength and flexibility while sitting; and Core Dynamics, which targets abdominal muscles, back, hips and buttocks.

“Remember,” LeBlanc tells participants in one video, “listen to your body and only do what’s comfortable for you.”

LeBlanc usually leads a variety of fitness classes at Piper Shores, a retirement community in Scarborough. During the pandemic, the campus has been closed and all group activities have been canceled, leaving residents to find other ways to stay active.

Some are using LeBlanc’s videos, while others are joining her on daily walks around the tree-lined campus while staying at least 6 feet apart.

“Exercise is a key factor in living longer, moving with confidence and staying independent,” LeBlanc said. “It can reduce or delay many chronic health conditions and reduces the risk of falling, which can trigger a variety of other health problems. And it reduces stress, which is probably most important at a time like this.”

Judy Young is a Piper Shores resident who has joined LeBlanc on guided walkabouts, though she usually goes for a brisk walk at least once a day on her own. She’s a former physical education teacher and professor of kinesiology – the science of body movement – who spent her career promoting fitness.

“I know how to exercise, but I’m interested now more than during my career in the benefits for seniors,” said Young, 77. “In order to have a good quality of life as we get older, we have to be more attentive to our health.”

In addition to previously mentioned benefits, Young noted that exercise boosts the immune system, endurance and attitude, all of which would be especially helpful during the pandemic.

“It keeps you able to continue doing the things you love and support other people in your life,” Young said. “You’re taking care of yourself.”

For Susan Henderson, the South Portland city councilor, the previously perfunctory activity of walking her dog is also proving to have significant mental health benefits during the pandemic.

On a recent hike through one of South Portland’s wooded parks, Henderson recalled the Japanese concept of shinrin-yoku or “forest bathing,” which recognizes that being surrounded by trees can promote health and happiness.

“We passed a brook. We passed a pond. Every care left me,” Henderson said. “It was just wonderful.”


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