After losing her husband, Marjorie Vowels found solace – and so much more – in swimming at her local YMCA.
By Steve Kaufman | Photo By James Moses of Bisig Impact Group
MARJORIE VOWELS goes to the Southwestern Family YMCA on Fordhaven Road near Iroqouis Park in Louisville three times a week for the water aerobics class.
It’s a 50-minute workout, during which she does maybe 20 jumping jacks in the water, sprints from one side of the pool to the other and works with buoyancy weights that, in the water, are the equivalent of 60 or 75 pounds.
“I used to do 125-pound weights, but I’ve had to cut back,” she admits.
In the 20 years she has been attending the Y class, Vowels, 84, has worked through painful tendonitis in her knee, lost some weight and says she’s not as tired as she used to be.
In fact, after finishing her water routine, she gets on the treadmill for a half-mile walk. (On the days she doesn’t participate in the water classes, she walks a mile.)
One of the major practical benefits of her exercise regimen is being able to shop regularly at the new Kroger supermarket in her area. “It’s about a half-mile long,” she laughed. “I’m not at all certain I could have navigated that entire store if I hadn’t been in the program.”
Vowels was not a lifelong swimming enthusiast who kept at it into her senior years. She grew up in Valley Station and went to the neighborhood pool in the summer, but mostly to hang out and socialize, getting into the water only to cool off.
As a young mother, she took her six children to the pool, but mostly to paddle around with them.
She retired at age 59 from her job as records clerk at Butler High School, and she and her husband did a lot of traveling together. Then, 20 years ago, he died “and I found I needed a reason to get out of bed in the morning.”
“We had talked about joining the Y,” she said. “We had relatives in the water classes. But we never did. After he passed away, I thought, ‘Now’s the time. And once you do, you’re hooked!”
If she misses a class, she feels that part of her life is missing, that she didn’t do everything right that day.
Not only is it important physically to her, it’s also important mentally. Vowels said it makes her feel good to exercise, provides a sense of accomplishment. And it provides a social circle for her, too. Most geriatricians say that seniors need social interaction, that isolation and loneliness are especially harmful to them.
Vowels’ class, anywhere from 20 to 30 in attendance – mostly women – has become a support group.
“We go out to lunch together every once in a while,” she said. “We get to know each other’s families, problems, joys. It’s something to share with other people, which is important. You don’t ever feel you’re alone; if you have a problem, you can share it with your friends. They become your friends.”
Such is the closeness that coming to class becomes a social obligation. “If I miss a class,” she said, “they all call. ‘Are you all right today? Is anything wrong?’ It’s like a family affair.”
Of course, the benefits are far more than simply social.
“I felt better right away,” Vowels explained. “I felt like I was doing something for my body. And I lost about 10 or 15 pounds, which I’ve kept off. Once you get in the water, you can’t give it up.
“I know I’m getting a good workout and it’s not taxing my muscles or joints. It’s a whole lot easier than anything I could do on land, and just as good a workout.”
Two years ago, she had tendonitis in her knee and her doctor advised her of certain things she shouldn’t do in the water. “He said, ‘you can’t kick out.’ He said he’d never had a breast stroke swimmer in his office who didn’t have tendonitis in the knee. So, any activity that resembles the way a breast stroke swimmer kicks, I shouldn’t do that.
“I can still walk, and can still do some of the other things. But now I know what I can and can’t do.”
The instructors are accommodating. “They’ll all say, ‘If it hurts, don’t do it.’ They’ll show us ways to modify the exercise without hurting ourselves.” (Vowels’ instructor is Dr. Donna Roberts, a family physician at University of Louisville Physicians.)
The program includes a little free swimming – “We call it the froggy kick” – and exercises where they hold onto a board and kick. There are weights in the water. Plus, jumping jacks and sprints.
“(We do) practically anything you’d do on land. I think I can still do what I did 20 years ago and feel just as good. My tendonitis has not returned, and I’ve had no problems since then.”
Vowels is an early-morning starter who travels a short distance to the Y in time for the 8 a.m. class. “I like the morning class. If I go to one of the later classes, I feel as if it’s taken up my entire day. This way, I’m done at 9 and can go on with the rest of my day.”
And the rest of her day is as energetic and vigorous as she chooses it to be. “feel like my whole body is better, more fit,” she said. “I’m convinced I haven’t aged as fast as (she would have) if I hadn’t joined the Y.”
And if you talked to her you’d be convinced of that, as well. “My legs have benefited; I can walk better,” she said. “I don’t think I could have done the treadmill if I hadn’t been doing the water.”
“My doctor tells me I’m doing good, to keep participating in the program,” she said. “In fact, one of the doctors told me he wished his bloodwork looked as good as mine does.”