The tragedies unfolding in Japan have given me pause to recall my idyllic childhood growing up on the beaches of Okinawa, in the mountains of Japan and in the bustling downtown of Tokyo. It was in that setting that I began a lifelong love of fitness and outdoor activities.
Thanks to my parents and their friends and their great model of active living, I learned sports and activities that would enrich my life at all ages. Of course as a child, when my mother would make me do yoga, stand on my head, sit in the lotus position, I wanted a different life — one with a television. When my dad decided to put shorts on his 42-year-old body and walk the length of Okinawa, I was mortified.
I had to take ice skating lessons and that was brutal.
But then I discovered swimming and I became hooked on fitness. And at some point I realized that yoga helped my breathing and that bicycling to school helped my legs. Sometimes a parent just has to get children past the “do what I say” stage before youngsters realize how much joy physical fitness can bring to their lives.
My dad took my brothers mountain climbing and even though I was the eldest, I was left at home. I saved my money and bought a climbers’ backpack at the Tobu’s Department Store in Tokyo. Then I wore it around the house until someone noticed that I was making a point. Soon I was allowed to join the boys and that opened a whole new world to me. I will forever treasure the memory of climbing, staying in remote hillside villages, listening to the travelers gamble on the other side of the rice-paper door, and resting my head on the rock pillow on the tatami mat.
I joined a mountaineering group in Oregon when I was in college and was amazed to discover that the majority of the members were over fifty years of age. I had a hard time keeping up with these craggy trailhounds. It was with this aging group that I scaled many of the mountains in the Pacific Northwest.
A recent article in the AARP magazine says that “being sedentary is much more of a risk factor for extreme declines in muscle mass, strength and endurance than is simply being past middle age.”
I was lucky to have parents who were convinced that “lifetime” sports were critical to long-term happiness. As they aged, their activities leaned more toward gardening and going for walks, but they remained active well into their 80s. I have met Maine elders who walk miles every day even though they are well into their 90s.
It is never too late to set a good example for your children or your grandchildren and to leave a legacy of health that will carry forward in your family line. Sure, technology is fun and educational, but you need to move, too.
Noelle Merrill is the executive director of the Eastern Area Agency on Aging in Bangor.