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Good to Know: Japanese-inspired fitness groups are just seniors' speed

From left, Eva Williams, 28, Berta Collins, 57,

From left, Eva Williams, 28, Berta Collins, 57, Elouise Burrell, 69, and Leslie Polk, 28, walk together in the Lake Como community of Fort Worth, Texas, in the spring. The ladies are part of a group that started walking when the city launched a Blue Zone initiative promoting wellness. Credit: Dallas Morning News (TNS)/Lawrence Jenkins

When Linda Fulmer and her husband moved into their new home about six years ago, they noticed their Fort Worth, Texas, neighborhood was in transition. Some retirees were moving out, and younger couples and families were moving in.

An older man, an original homeowner who lived across the street, expressed concern that the neighborhood was on its way downhill. “I thought, ‘OK, that’s an issue of people not connecting with one another,’” she recalls.

So Fulmer, 61, spearheaded an effort to help knit the neighborhood back together. She started small groups that met for regular walks around the White Lake Hills area, about six miles east of downtown Fort Worth. The groups drew inspiration from Moai, a tradition that began in Okinawa, Japan.

Moai (pronounced mo-eye) roughly translates to “coming together for a common purpose.” On the Japanese island, village elders assigned about five young children to a Moai as a sort of second family to provide companionship, financial help and lifelong support. In Fort Worth, Moais formed for walking are part of a citywide effort to boost health habits linked to longevity.

The walking groups are in different corners of the city. Some are made up of people who live in the same neighborhood. Others are based at churches, retirement communities, workplaces or community centers.

Far more than the miles walked or calories burned, the walking groups encourage social connection. They help fend off isolation and loneliness. They have turned strangers into friends. For participants, they’ve become a more powerful social network than those found behind a computer or cellphone screen.


Joining a Moai helped Elouise Burrell, 69, pick up exercise again. She had quit her job to become a full-time caregiver after her father had a stroke. Her 92-year-old father, Roosevelt, also joins the group in his motorized wheelchair.

“It brings a lot of joy to me and to my dad to be out there doing something like this, particularly after an illness,” she says. “I have not had an illness, but I have been connected to my dad’s illness, so my life has been restricted in some ways. It’s a nice opportunity to feel alive again.”

Fort Worth’s walking Moais are part of Blue Zones, a national wellness organization started by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow. He identified and studied five places in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives: Okinawa; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Lomo Linda, California. He dubbed the areas “blue zones.” It built upon work by Gianni Pes and Michel Poulain, who studied the high concentration of centenarians in Sardinia. Buettner and a team of researchers have studied the blue zones to better understand habits that contribute to happiness and longevity.

In Japan, average life expectancy is the world’s highest at 84.1 years for men and 87.1 years for women, according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s about five years longer than in the United States.

Social connection was one of the common factors that researchers found in the blue zones. People who live in the regions tended to have friends or belong to groups that modeled healthy behaviors, such as exercising, eating healthy and not smoking. In Okinawa, those social groups took the form of Moais.

The Burrells walk for 30 to 40 minutes on Sunday nights in Lake Como, a historically black neighborhood on the west side of Fort Worth. The walking group’s members span from age 10 to 92.

“It’s an opportunity for us to engage with some young people because we’re old,” Elouise says. “Their minds are fresh, and they give me another perspective.”


Across town, Fulmer meets her Moai, ranging from three to seven people, each weekday at 7 a.m. Fulmer used to have an achy hip. When she’d step, her knees sometimes felt like they’d buckle. She says the pain has gone away since she began the regular walks about five years ago.

On walks, they talk about plans for the day ahead, she says. Sometimes they share recommendations for a trusted handyman or think aloud about a big decision, such as a car purchase. And they support one another through life’s challenges, Fulmer said. Two Moai members have coped with the deaths of their mothers.

But Fulmer says the walks are full of lighter moments, too. They used to regularly spot a neighbor’s chickens escaping the yard. Ruby, Fulmer’s 7-year-old miniature pinscher-Chihuahua mix, has become one of the Moai’s most enthusiastic members.

Of course, Fulmer hopes the walks are adding years to her life. But the top health benefit she’s certain of: Walking with her friends makes life more fun.

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