The Secret to Healthy Aging: Play!

Image courtesy Never Leave the Playground.

Since I was raised by my grandmother, I got to see the aging process up close and personal. I began living with my grandma when she was in her early 60s, and saw her through that decade and her 70s as well. Always an active woman (when she was young, she strapped on early-model roller skates and rode down the island of Manhattan from 181st Street to the fish market at Fulton Street, watched them unload the boats and organize the fish, and would then skate back), she didn't slow down much as she aged. Just days before her death, she was building a new rock wall on our property, one of her favorite activities: "It's like a physical puzzle!" she enthusiastically described it.

My grandma also kept her brain sharp. Sure, she read lots of books, watched educational programs on PBS, and listened to classical music, but she also started "borrowing" my Nintendo, and got hooked on Tetris at age 74; she insisted it made her volunteer work in the emergency room at our local hospital (she had been an EMT in her 50s) much more efficient. "I have to be able to keep up with the young doctors, or they'll switch my volunteer job to some boring part of the hospital," she explained to me, rolling her eyes at the thought. She loved the excitement of the ER and didn't want to lose her hand-eye coordination, so: Tetris, Dr. Mario and other "puzzle" games, for about 30 minutes a day (and sometimes longer when she got into it). We also did puzzles and played word games and board games. Between the physical and mental, she was in excellent shape through the end (and it was fun for me as a kid too). Quality of life, indeed.

My grandmother watched her less-mobile friends (and elderly people who came into the ER) deteriorate over time — and made a conscious decision not to be like them.

As the largest cohort of Americans ever begin their golden years (I love that term — by any account, my grandma's last 20 years may have well been her best), many baby boomers are questioning the accepted declines in physical and mental capacity that supposedly come along with aging. Keeping active through play is one way to both lighten the mood and get moving, both proven to aid in healthy longevity.

Stephen Jepson is like my grandma and all the other older people who aren't ready to sit at home and watch their "stories" all day. Jepson's POV is to make keeping mental and physical capacity high through play. By combining mobility, games, dexterity challenges, and plain old exercise, Jepson's routine (see the joyful video, below) looks a lot like what kids do — moving because it feels good, perfecting a goofy task, and most importantly, not taking it all too seriously. He calls his routine and way of approaching fitness "Never Leave the Playground" and it's inspiring for all ages. His point about preventing falls (the single determining factor in how mobile and healthy an older person will be) in the elderly through active conditioning — is a very important one.

I love this trend of older people taking their own mobility and mental health into their own hands, and challenging what "old folks" can do.

I love this trend. Why can't we all play a bit more, especially in service of keeping us fit and healthy? I feel lucky to have had such a good example of aging in my family — even my snooty Victorian great-grandmother, mostly deaf as she was for the last 15 years of her life, got up every morning and took long, brisk walks — right up until a few days before she passed away at 96. My own father just turned 72 and is still out in the ocean several times a week doing what he loves — surfing. (He swims on the off days when conditions aren't good for hanging 10.) My aunt runs the beach (and picks up plastic while she does it) near her home and is planning a hiking trip (with me!) in New Zealand next year.

You can bet that if I'm lucky enough to live as long as the people in my family, I'll be playing all the way.