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Older Long Islanders find new fitness routines during coronavirus isolation

In a class of his own: Luis Pina,

In a class of his own: Luis Pina, 71, has a new workout buddy  — his tablet, which he uses for virtual workouts. "I like to exercise seven days a week," he says. Credit: Maria Pina

Newsday is opening this story to all readers as we provide Long Islanders with news and information you can use during the coronavirus outbreak. All readers can learn the latest news at newsday.com/LiveUpdates.

Before the coronavirus lockdown, Luis Pina, 71, a retired nurse who lives with his wife and sister in Hicksville, hit the gym like clockwork for yoga, Zumba, strength training, you name it.

“I like to exercise seven days a week,” he said. And he still does.

While COVID-19 has made everyone a shut-in and pulled the plug on fitness centers, Pina and other health-conscious Long Islanders who are 60 and older — an age group susceptible to getting very ill if infected by the virus — don’t plan on turning into pandemic couch potatoes.

Instead, they’re lacing up sneakers and getting busy via live virtual workouts, videos and apps as well as walks, spring cleaning in the garage, bike rides and lawn work. Yep, weed-whacking, digging and raking count, according to the National Institute on Aging at NIH (nia.nih.gov). “Get your garden or yard in shape, and you’ll shape up, too,” notes the National Institutes of Health.

“I exercise with my tablet now,” says Pina, who tunes into Mid-Island Y JCC livestreams and videos in his personal at-home fitness center. (Actually, it’s a spare bedroom formerly occupied by one of his three grown-up daughters who’ve left the nest.) He rolls out a mat and has the whole place to himself.

A goal to shoot for is moderate physical activity 30 minutes a day five days a week, according to Dr. Clifford Feiner, chief of the division of geriatric medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside. That jibes with a recommendation from the World Health Organization, which notes that “older adults with poor mobility should do physical activity to enhance balance and prevent falls on three or more days a week.”

Make it a routine

The reasons to keep moving as best you can are compelling. Exercise boosts the immune system and mental health — a win-win that matters more than ever amid COVID-19 isolation. One new study found that 70% of Americans are worried about their physical health and 58% about their mental health because of social distancing. Amid all that apt concern, there’s some local good news: Analysis has found that hospital patients on Long Island hit a plateau in mid-April.

“Exercise can include just walking — indoors or outdoors,” says Feiner. “When you’re outside, follow social-distancing rules.” His other workout guideline: “Always exercise at your own level.”

That means you can modify the number of reps and intensity of any exercise. Instead of traditional pushups, for example, do them with your hands placed on your kitchen counter. Need to use a chair when you do squats? Pull one up.

Lloyd Harbor-based fitness expert Don Saladino, who owns Drive 495 gym in Manhattan and boasts a roster of celebrity clients including Ryan Reynolds, says even moderate exercise reaps rewards. “The point is to get off the couch,” he said. “It’s about movement that gets the joints lubed and the muscles stretched. Being consistent is the key.”

An exercise buddy to help you stay the course is just a click away. Gazing into screens for at-home exercise instruction and motivation is hardly new. Hello, Jane Fonda “Workout.”

These days video and audioconferencing platforms that can host group gatherings have been getting major workouts.

“If I have to exercise on my own, it’s very easy to get distracted,” says Marion Samson, 61, who lives in Port Washington. “I find it difficult to stay motivated and focused by myself at home.” Classes available via Zoom, YouTube and social media from her go-to local gym, Power Ten Fitness Club, have helped her step up and stick with it. “It’s nice seeing everybody else in the class over Zoom and to have something of a community feeling,” she says.

John Lalena, 60, another Power Ten member, is taking at-home PE sessions in stride. “I’m continuing to do what I need to do to stay healthy and in shape through this,” he says.

“We’re not even getting the exercise of walking to the train station now,” adds Lalena, who’s working from home instead of commuting from Port Washington to his New York Life office in Manhattan. “It’s about making this part of your routine and continuing in the new normal.”

Switching it up

In West Hempstead, Rhoda Frank Berkson, 73, an adjunct professor in health professions at Hofstra University, has put her previous weekly workout regimen on hold. That included a private exercise session with local trainer Kristine Hughes as well as three visits to a nearby gym.

During home workouts three times a week she switches it up and incorporates cardio, planks, squats, stretches, lunges, pushups and conditioning with light hand weights. “I like to attack all of the different muscles,” she says. “And I am always careful to stretch and pay attention to my breathing.”

On nice days she heads outside to walk, often with her husband, Mark, 77. “What’s nice about walking,” Berkson says, “is that you get to see the community — from a distance. We like to mix up the route so it doesn’t get boring. Sometimes we walk alone. Sometimes we hold hands.”

Exercise breaks add structure and a rhythm to time spent sheltering at home, which can leave people feeling confined. “This is a learning experience,” Berkson says. “I’m usually never home, so I’m discovering how to fill my day and still allow myself to enjoy my home.”

In East Hampton, retired Tommy Hilfiger co-founder Joel Horowitz, 69, counts on the physical as well as the mental boost he gets from a workout. “Exercise helps clear your head and give you a more positive outlook on things,” says Horowitz. That’s an important benefit backed up by the National Institute on Aging. At home Horowitz uses resistance bands and kettlebells plus exercise videos and apps for yoga and meditation.

“Exercise has been important to me for most of my life, especially from the time I turned 50,” says Horowitz, who has trained one-on-one and remotely for years with Saladino. “I always eat kind of healthy. I’m eating less meat and more fish. My girlfriend is pescatarian.” He cops to one dietary indulgence, perhaps a concession to current, cooped-up times. “I’m eating more ice cream than usual,” he says.

No time for perfection

Syosset nutrition consultant Karen Ansel, author of “Healing Superfoods for Anti-Aging” (Hearst, 2017), understands the need for some self-indulgence. “The current situation is challenging on so many levels,” she says. That includes being home and surrounded by food 24/7.

“Healthy eating starts in the supermarket,” she says. Some of the foods she counts as must-haves, especially during a quarantine, are whole-grain cereal, which does triple duty as breakfast, snacks and a lazy dinner (“I recommend buying several types to keep things from getting boring,” she says), frozen fruits and vegetables (“when you run out of fresh produce you don’t have to keep running back to the supermarket”) and canned tuna, salmon and beans that are all versatile.

“As we get older we don’t have room in the calorie counter to snack nonstop,” says Ansel. It helps to establish a healthy eating zone. So if you’re going to nosh it has to always be at the kitchen table. If you have to keep going back there, you’re apt to stop. Then again, she added, “Now is not the time to try to be perfect. Do your best.”

That motto works for Luis Pina, whose at-home quarantine routine agrees with him even though it can’t replace the communal encouragement of breaking a sweat. “I miss the high-fives,” he says.

EXERCISE ONLINE OPTIONS

You can find some gentle fitness routines online. Health professionals recommend that older adults talk to their doctors before beginning a new exercise routine; you can find guidelines for that conversation at the National Institute on Aging’s website, nwsdy.li/NIAGettingStarted.

Chair yoga. Flexibility and stretching are the names of the game. “We’ve made a conscious effort to include virtual exercise for all ages and levels,” says Scott Zlochower, director of fitness for the Suffolk YJCC in Commack. Find it at nwsdy.li/SYJCCChairYoga.

Abs. This 10-minute workout from the Mid-Island Y JCC in Plainview concentrates on core strength. Find it at nwsdy.li/MidIslandYJCCAbs.

Tai chi. Balance can decline with age. This exercise helps improve it while working leg strength, flexibility and range of motion. Find it at nwsdy.li/SYJCCTaiChi.

Full body. “Healthy bodies aren’t meant to sit still or be dormant,” says physical therapist Steve Panzik, owner of Power Ten Fitness Club in Port Washington. “At any age you can improve strength, balance, flexibility and endurance.” Find it at nwsdy.li/PowerTenFullBody.

— Joe Dziemianowicz

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