Andy Urena of Freeport, at Blink Fitness in Baldwin, recently reconfigured...

Andy Urena of Freeport, at Blink Fitness in Baldwin, recently reconfigured his pandemic workouts to protect his joints and increase his cardio fitness. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

Since the pandemic began, Freeport resident Andy Urena has shed 10 pounds from his nearly 6-foot frame.

A fitness buff for more than two decades, Urena, 50, hasn’t just maintained his pre-
pandemic no-sweets diet and four- to five-day-a-week workout at Blink Fitness.

Concerned about his aging joints, the father of three has generally reduced his muscle-building regimen by 20% with the use of lighter weights, and he has stepped up his cardio workouts by 25%, an increase that has translated into 15 minutes on the treadmill and 30 minutes on the elliptical.

Urena has also kicked up his fitness routine to include 45- to 60-minute morning walks three to four times a week before he leaves for his building inspector job at Birchwood Court, a Mineola residential complex.

“I started walking because I’m getting older, and the body cannot tolerate too much weight anymore,” said Urena, who has encouraged his wife, Mary, 45, a physical therapist, to accompany him on his constitutionals. “During the pandemic, going out for a walk for fresh air and not having to think about COVID is also about relieving stress.”

While the pandemic initially drove many people to retreat to their couches with books and streaming videos, some older Long Islanders used the lockdown period in March 2020 — and the two years that have followed — to embrace heathy eating habits and individual and group energy-
expending activities, as in walking, paddleboarding and stationary biking.

A mixed commitment

Nationwide, people in the 50-plus age demographic have been mixed in their commitment to eating healthy and staying fit during the pandemic, according to an AARP-sponsored survey conducted between April and May 2021.

Among these older adults, 45% said it was more difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle over the prior year, AARP reported. In addition, 29% said that in the past year they were eating more sweet snacks, while a fifth reported that their diet included more salty snacks and/or highly processed foods.

Spending more time at home, watching TV and experiencing stress were among the reasons those surveyed gave for eating less healthfully.

In another AARP-sponsored survey during the same period, more than one-third of adults ages 50-plus said they devoted less time to exercise since the pandemic had begun. Plus, among those who said maintaining a healthy lifestyle over the past year had gotten easier, nearly 20% admitted to exercising less.

In the past two years, on top of factors that have always discouraged exercise (chronic illness, anxiety about falling, the presence or anticipation of pain or discomfort) were piled new challenges: the need to stay socially distant, the difficulty of exerting energy while wearing a mask, COVID-19 infection and recovery.

In contrast to physical inactivity, which is a risk factor for illness, physical activity offers protection against disease, said Jennifer Tripken, associate director for the Center of Healthy Aging at the National Council on Aging in Arlington, Virginia. It can lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, regulate blood sugar and reduce pain.

As a result, physical activity can “minimize or slow down the natural process of aging,” offering older individuals the ability to do things that “bring happiness, joy and meaning” to their lives, Tripken said.

Weight creeping up

Gina Adrian bought a weighted vest in 2020 for her...

Gina Adrian bought a weighted vest in 2020 for her power walks in Oyster Bay.  Credit: Corey Sipkin

For older people, Dr. Lyn Weiss, chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health on Long Island and professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Long Island School of Medicine, generally recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, as in brisk walking. She also advises twice a week strength training, such as 12 to 15 wall push-ups, but counsels to stop upon getting fatigued.

“People recognize the importance of staying fit for mental and physical well-being,” Dr. Weiss said.

For Gina Adrian, 58, physical activity has also been about weight management. Back in 2007, through Weight Watchers, Adrian lost 40 pounds, which she kept off for awhile. But in 2015, when the 5-foot-2½ Jericho resident finally stepped on her home scale, she was shocked to see her weight had increased by 25 pounds, and Adrian recommitted herself to weekly Weight Watchers meetings.

“As soon as I stopped being highly fixated on my weight and had gone back to bad habits, the weight started creeping back up,” she said.

So, when the pandemic hit and Weight Watchers’ meetings went virtual, Adrian, concerned that her commitment to staying the course would “slip away,” became super-diligent about maintaining her targeted 137 pounds, she said.

At the outset, Adrian ordered a Peloton exercise bike — which her daughter, Ariel, 30, and son, Andrew, 25, also started using. In addition, Adrian began to walk daily with Ariel, a teacher who was instructing students virtually until schools reopened to in-person instruction.

Since Ariel has returned to in-person teaching, Adrian has been listening to podcasts and music through AirPods during her solo strides.

Earlier, in May 2020, she added strength training to her walking regimen, purchasing 2- and 5-pound hand weights, and about three months later, Adrian said, she “invested” in a weighted vest. Adrian, who is married and not currently employed, walks most days.

“Before, I was following Weight Watchers but not exercising as much,” she said. “Now, I’m a better 137 pounds.”

The die-hard fitness buff has also tweaked her dietary habits, including replacing Lean Cuisine dinners with homemade chicken dishes. “I make all my own food from scratch now and rarely eat out to be in control of my weight,” she said.

An expanding routine

Suzan Goldhaber, right, on a paddleboard outing with her daughter, Sara...

Suzan Goldhaber, right, on a paddleboard outing with her daughter, Sara Goldhaber-Fiebert, in Port Jefferson.

Credit: Suzan Goldhaber

With the advent of the pandemic, Suzan Goldhaber not only sustained but added exercises to her fitness regimen. A longtime exercise enthusiast with a passion for activity and adventure, Goldhaber’s energy exertions, she said, are about being in shape for winter skiing, keeping her from getting “flabby” and feeling well.

In the distant and recent past, her uber-active interests have translated into hiking in Wyoming in the 1990s with her husband, two kids and llamas, sea-kayaking with her daughter in Vietnam in 2014 and downhill skiing at Alpine Meadows in California in April with her family.

“I can’t keep up with them, but no matter,” said Goldhaber, 77, noting she was more “risk-taking” than her husband, Fred, 82. The couple live at Jefferson’s Ferry Life Plan Community in South Setauket.

Four years ago, they purchased two stand-up paddle boards, which Goldhaber has incorporated into her fitness regimens. Although she paddles in Stony Brook and Port Jefferson harbors in warm weather months, her daughter, Sara Goldhaber-Fiebert, gave her a wet suit in April 2021 as a birthday gift — to insulate her mother against the cool Long Island waters and in anticipation of paddling together with Sara’s then-11-year-old the next month.

And at the pandemic’s start, Goldhaber had purchased snowshoes, which she wore for the first time in December 2021.

“I really wanted to be prepared to do something local and to get around in the snow around here, knowing I couldn’t travel,” she said.

Besides regularly participating in Jefferson’s Ferry’s different exercise classes, such as interval training and Zumba, Goldhaber has been working out twice-weekly — and virtually — with a bicoastal ski buddy since the beginning of the pandemic. Her friend leads the sessions, which have slowly grown to as many as 11 participants, including from Sarasota, Florida, Pittsburgh and the Berkshires in Massachusetts and ranging from 74 to 84 years old.

The exercises, which her friend has picked up from her own personal trainer, involve weights of up to 10 pounds, squats, planks and stretch bands, as well as core workouts.

“We spend the first 15 minutes, chatting and catching up, and one hour exercising and cooling down,” Goldhaber said, adding, “We laugh a lot and have favorite expressions, such as ‘It hurts so good.’ ”

The pandemic has also driven Goldhaber, with her husband, to participate two to three times a week in a free online tai chi program sponsored by Stony Brook University. Previously, she took in-
person tai chi classes at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook.

“Tai chi seems perfect during the pandemic — a lifesaver in helping us stay grounded and focused, and it’s remarkable when you’re doing these very slow motions and engaging your core and working muscles,” Goldhaber said. The ancient martial art is “soothing, relaxing and energizing, and the mind is really in a good place.”

Overall, Goldhaber’s diverse and sustained activities during the pandemic are about allowing her to be in shape for winter skiing, feeling good and not developing “batwing arms,” she said. “It’s so easy to let yourself go, and I just see the benefits so clearly.”

It’s about numbers

Weight loss — through exercise and diet — isn’t the only barometer of a successful fitness regimen.

Other measurements include heart rate, body mass index, balance and blood pressure, according to Dr. Lyn Weiss, chair of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at NYU Langone Health on Long Island and professor of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Long Island School of Medicine.

To assess a health and fitness routine’s effectiveness, Weiss recommends the following steps:

Calculate your age-related target heart rate. Subtract your age from 220, to get your maximum heart rate; your target heart rate should be 50% to 75% of your maximum rate for moderate activity, and 70% to 85% of your maximum rate for vigorous activities. A resting heart rate should range between 60 and 100 beats per minutes, provided there are no cardiovascular problems or arrhythmias.

Compute your body mass index. Using an online BMI calculator, plug in your age, gender, weight and height to find out whether yours is between 18.5 and 24.9, the recommended BMI.

Determine your risk for falls. Using the Timed Up and Go test, rise — without using your hands — from a standard chair, walk to a marker 10 feet away, return to the chair and sit down. The test should take less than 16 seconds; more than 16 seconds puts you into the falling risk category.

Monitor blood pressure. Since health, weight, diet and medications can impact blood pressure, check pressure regularly to make sure it’s not too high or too low.

— Cara S. Trager