Embracing Healthy Living in Muskoka's Outdoors
Article by Meghan Smith / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns
Living a healthy lifestyle can have a broad range of meaning, depending on the audience. What constitutes a balance of physical and mental well-being changes as we age and depends on our stage of life.
Whether you enjoy tackling new pursuits, prefer to stick to a tried and true hobby or simply want to be in condition for your usual daily tasks, Muskoka’s landscape lends itself to activity and adventure. No matter your age and no matter the season, there are boundless opportunities to be physically active.
From cycling or paddling to walking or running, stretching and strength training to yoga and tai chi, starting or continuing your own fitness journey as you become an older adult does not need to be difficult or frightening. Setting a goal to do something each day, even for only a few minutes, is always better than nothing.
“It’s never too late to start,” comments Erin Bailey Boyes, personal trainer and owner of Body By Design Fitness Studio. “Start at any age, whether you’re an older adult or not, and make your health a priority. Find something you enjoy and go for it.”
“I believe strongly in overall wellness and health,” explains Jen Scev, instructor and owner of Yoga 44. “Yogis don’t necessarily have the fittest looking bodies. They are flexible and can hold poses. Practice is really a mix of calming the mental state, confidence from standing tall and the physical benefits of stretching and strengthening muscles.”
Regular physical activity is a critical part of a healthy lifestyle. After age 30, humans begin to lose 3 per cent to 5 per cent of muscle mass per decade and after age 40, that can increase to 8 per cent per decade. As we age, activity often becomes less of a priority with other more pressing obligations, such as careers or families. However, the importance of physical activity to our overall health and well-being only increases.
“It’s crucial to keep up some sort of strength training as we age,” explains Boyes. “You can slow down and counteract the losses of aging by doing so many things.”
Strength training, and including functional fitness and movement into that training, increases the overall quality of life as we age. Functional fitness trains muscles to work together and prepares them for use by simulating movements typically employed at home or at work. Keeping muscles in shape leads to stronger bones, increased muscle mass, increased joint flexibility and decreased effects of arthritis.
“People often focus on weight loss as their main goal, which can be important,” says Boyes. “But being able to play with your grandkids, walk without pain and enjoy your life – that’s the type of movement training and weight training that’s so important.”
Tai chi, one of many martial arts, focuses on balance, mindfulness, proper breathing techniques, healthy eating habits and a spiritual connection.
“Tai chi works at bringing everything into balance – mentally, physically and spiritually,” explains Valerie Houston-Peel, instructor at Temple Knights Martial Arts Academy. “It’s all encompassing. Tai chi is practical as a self-defence tactic but many people study now just for the overall health benefits.”
The health benefits of tai chi are physical as well as spiritual and emotional. Regular practice improves concentration, focus and awareness. Physically, it strengthens every muscle, joint and ligament in the body, along with improving balance, flexibility and posture. It can also have cardiovascular benefits, reduces stress and fosters a feeling of harmony and well-being.
“It’s a wonderful organic art form that you can practice by yourself or with a group of people,” says Houston-Peel. “There are 108 movements in the choreography but you don’t learn them all at once. You’ll learn something new each class and thread them all together.”
The movements and forms in tai chi all connect together for a continuous, graceful flow of movement. Similarly, yoga blends both physical and mental practices. Physically, yoga promotes blood flow through the body, which promotes healing and helps to prevent disease. Mentally, yoga practice helps in quieting the mind, building awareness of the body and managing stress. Healing from within and creating internal and external balance are key to strong practice.
“Yoga literally means to unite, and to me, that focuses on uniting postures with breath,” explains Scev. “You focus on your breath while performing but breathing is a part of everything we do. We wouldn’t be here without that breath.”
Yoga 44 currently provides full-service private dockside sessions across Muskoka Lakes throughout the spring, summer and fall. Scev arrives with a rolling suitcase of mats and blocks and takes great care in curating the music and flow of each session she instructs.
“I lay the foundation of the practice and the alignment of the postures with my playlist,” explains Scev. “People love the power part, which I do at the beginning and for a lot of the session but the meditation is so important. It’s really important to slow and take time for the poses.”
There are many forms and kinds of yoga, aimed at various levels of difficulty and meditation. Focus on posture and breathing are key, so performing the poses can be completed seated or standing. For some, the poses may be too difficult at first, requiring continued practice to achieve. Even those who cannot practice the poses, being present, hearing the cues and focusing on healing and breathing can improve their wellbeing.
“Half of the battle is showing up,” shares Scev. “Roll out the mat and give it a try. I like to include a lot of instruction about why we’re doing a pose and how everything connects in the anatomy. It’s not about the workout. It’s about the intention. That’s yoga.”
Showing up and making physical activity an important part of your daily or weekly routine can be helped by teaming up. Having a friend, a group or a personal trainer creates accountability, making it more difficult to ignore your plans.
“When COVID hit, my concern was for our community, that the gains and progress would be lost by our clients,” shares Boyes. “How could we assist our clients in maintaining or even improving their health in all of this? We were forced to get creative and offer virtual and then outdoor sessions.”
For Dave Rasmussen and his friends, their informal cycling club developed over eight years ago through connections at their Probus club. They co-ordinate rides several times each week through the spring, summer and fall seasons. Rasmussen credits the people he cycles with for all that he’s learned over the years and his ability to stay healthy.
“The feeling I get when I’m cycling is the same feeling canoe tripping used to give me,” shares Rasmussen. “When you start riding, everything else you’ve been worrying about all day, that just goes away.”
The group has approximately 10 routes across Muskoka they cycle through but each year is slightly different depending on what roads are under construction. They plan various meeting spots or starting points, in advance, and sometimes even plan tours further afield, arriving by car and then cycling their route and then travelling home.
“We hardly ever all ride the exact same route,” explains Rasmussen. “Some of our group, who are better riders, can go longer and do more challenging routes than others. We can have a broad range of skill levels riding at any given time.”
Starting off easy in the spring and slowing building their endurance, the group usually targets rides that are at least 30-kilometre loops when they’re together. However, some of the group also ride on other days in the week by themselves. The average age of their members? It’s 75 years old.
“It’s as much a social thing as it is an athletic thing,” says Rasmussen. “What we’re looking for is people who are congenial, can ride at least 30 km and who are prepared to be flexible in the sense that if the day calls for it, they’ll push themselves or be happy to take a slightly different route.”
No matter what activity you choose to engage in, ensure the movements are being completed correctly to effectively achieve goals and reduce injuries. When adding activity to your routine, whether it’s a new outlet for you or you are rarely active, start small and slowly add on to it. Often, individuals jump into something new and cause themselves injury by doing too much, too quickly.
“As we age, we can get an injury and become sedentary,” shares Boyes. “Movement is magic. Keep moving but in a pain-free way. You’ll have a better quality of life and live much longer.”
Pain when you’re working out or being active should be a red flag. Having pain in muscles and joints, beyond muscle fatigue, is a sign to stop that activity and have it professionally assessed.
“The key in staying well is finding an activity you enjoy,” says Boyes. “Find out what it is you like, whether that’s tennis lessons, a walking club or a stretching or yoga class. Find like-minded individuals and create a community. Start slow and gradually build up.”
“Find people with a common interest and talk to people to see their skills levels,” says Rasmussen. “I really enjoy the camaraderie and how my body feels at the end. Well, maybe not at the end but after I recover!”
“The fact that tai chi touches people not just as a physical exercise allows you to connect on so many different levels,” says Houston-Peel. “There are the friendships that develop but I’ve seen such incredible health benefits and change in people from regular practice.”
Overall health and fitness is about connection to your own body’s strengths and limitations, connection to those around you and connection to the environment around you.