At the suggestion of her daughter, Phillis Nachilongo began exercising on a consistent basis when Winnipeg was first locked down due to the coronavirus last March.
Almost one year later, she is happier, her blood pressure has improved and she’s able to move better. Oh, and she just turned 83.
Previously, Nachilongo had done aerobics at her seniors’ club once a week and she would go swimming. But the lockdown put a stop to that.
She lives with her daughter, Mwaka Kaonga. The two are roommates and have been living together on and off for close to 60 years. It was Kaonga, a mother to six grown children of her own, who motivated Nachilongo to start moving more.
When Kaonga began working from home in the spring of 2020 — so she was around her mom 24-7 — she saw her in a different light.
"I noticed that (my mom) was going downhill and she wasn’t very upbeat. I thought, ‘I have to try something here,’" Kaonga says. "I said, ‘You should move around the house. Just walk two laps down the hallway.’ She could hardly make that walk because she was dragging her feet."
Staying active can be challenging for older adults, as many have been largely stuck inside for nearly a year. As a result, the very changes in lifestyle that keep people safe from exposure to COVID-19 can also result in the adoption of sedentary habits.
Research shows that as much as half of functional decline between the ages of 30 and 70 isn’t due to aging but to an inactive way of life, according to the Government of Canada.
Even though the two had lived together for so long, Kaonga had never noticed that her mom’s health was declining.
"Being at home allowed me to zone in and I could see her. Pre-pandemic, I was at work and when I came home around 6 p.m., I’d be exhausted. I just made sure she ate and then we went to bed so I never really saw her," she says. "Now that I’m working from home, I’ve noticed how long she would sleep, sit and not move around. It made me realize that something had to be done."
Kaonga started her mom off slowly, getting her to climb two steps in the house that extend from the front door to the living room.
"She was struggling with those two steps and I thought, we’re in big trouble," Kaonga says. "So I made a workout schedule."
From there, Nachilongo went to work. She began by climbing those two steps — that’s one round. From there, Kaonga added rounds. Two steps, three steps, four steps. Up and down each time.
"If her legs are weak, she won’t be able to do any of the activities so you have to keep the legs strong," Kaonga says. "When we’d do an activity, (my mom) would get into it. And once she realized she could do it, she’d say, ‘I’ll do one more.’"
Kaonga created a schedule for her mom that combined aerobic and strength training four times each week. Initially, she struggled.
"I found them very difficult to do. I was very afraid of the treadmill and the bike, even the stairs, so we just walked around the house," Nachilongo says. "I used to drag my feet on the floor and my daughter would say, ‘Lift your feet.’ It was hard to lift my feet."
But soon enough, with some practice and patience, Nachilongo progressed to using the treadmill, indoor bike and began incorporating weight training. Both of them also dedicate one day each week to dancing.
"On Mondays, we dance," Kaonga says. "(My mom) will pick a song and we’ll dance and move to it. She loves singing and dancing so I put it in as an activity."
To achieve health benefits and improve functional abilities, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology recommends adults aged 65 years and older should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week in sessions of 10 minutes or more. It’s also beneficial to add muscle- and bone-strengthening activities at least two days per week.
For some added motivation, Kaonga posts every single one of her mom’s workout videos to Facebook for friends and family.
"I think the Facebook videos are the biggest thing that have helped us," Kaonga says. "It wasn’t just me coaching her, it was an entire online community coaching her so she felt accountable. I’d give her the iPad, she’d read the video comments and we’d talk about it. The comments were positive."
Facebook has been a major stimulus for Nachilongo’s transformation and sustaining her physical activity.
"I don’t know how long we could have gone just the two of us," Kaonga says. "Some people comment on how much my mom is motivating them and she tells them to try a little bit at a time. The entire (online) community has been coaching and cheering her on."
One commonality among people of any age? The longing for routine. Seniors, in particular, thrive on normalcy in their golden years. By providing a new and safe outlet, Kaonga was simultaneously improving her mom’s mind, body and spirit.
Exercising on a consistent basis for almost a year has not only improved Nachilongo’s strength but also kept things entertaining during lockdown.
"I feel good. The workouts are easier now, I don’t drag my feet anymore and my legs are stronger. My daughter gives me different workouts so it’s much more interesting," Nachilongo says. "I am at seven minutes on the bike and the treadmill with a one-and-a-half per cent incline. I can now do the bike with some resistance. I tried snowshoeing. I didn’t like it. I kept falling."
Baby steps. Not everyone is an outdoor winter enthusiast.
As we work to keep ourselves safe, we also need to be sure we’re not falling into physical inactivity. Older adults who don’t get regular exercise may become prone to chronic diseases, weakened muscles and frailty.
In the spring and summer of 2020, Kaonga brought her mom to Grant Park High School to use the outdoor track. They would wake up at five in the morning and be at the track for 6 a.m.
"Last summer, we did most of our workouts outside," says Kaonga. "(We went to) Grant Park track and I would get her to run the straightaways and walk the bends."
Nachilongo has now worked up to walking five kilometres. In fact, when she achieved that goal, Kaonga and her friends cheered her on and had an outdoor ceremony where they awarded Nachilongo with a medal.
"She ran about 200 metres to the finish line," Kaonga says. "My grandkids came and I made it into a big thing. She really liked that."
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, which gets the heart pumping and improves cardio-respiratory fitness, has multiple health benefits, including reduced risk for heart attack, stroke, depression and age-related cognitive decline.
"Last summer, I did two races: a 2.5-kilometre (virtual) Point Douglas run and a five-kilometre race at Grant Park High School track. I love the track," Nachilongo says.
Incorporating this routine into her lifestyle has improved Nachilongo’s physical health, built up her self-confidence and supported her mental well-being.
"(I have) strong legs. I sleep better and it gives me something to look forward to every day. It gives me purpose," she says. "I feel happier and healthier."
Kaonga notes that her mom does have one caveat.
"She refuses to wear workout clothes," she says. "She dresses to the nines — earrings, pearls, a nice dress and bracelets. Even to go to (the track at) Grant Park, she’s dressed up. I don’t fight her on it anymore. As long as she works out, that’s fine."
Nachilongo is grateful for the time she spends with her daughter.
"My daughter working from home is a big help. I used to just sit and sleep waiting for her to get home. She would come home too tired. Now I wake up and she’s here," she says. "I’m not lonely and it’s always exciting having a coach and a training partner."
For Kaonga, the changes in her mom extend beyond her physical health.
"I’ve noticed that her mental well-being has improved. She’s happier and more alive. She wakes up and it’s a new day. This is what the lockdown gift has been to me," Kaonga says. "For me to be able to really see my mom and do something about it. I would not have seen this otherwise. She would’ve gone downhill without me realizing it until it was too late."
Now, a year later, this mother-daughter duo’s bond is stronger than ever.
"We only have each other," Kaonga says. "The bonding (with my mom) has been a gift for me. Happy roommate, happy life."
Sabrina Carnevale is a freelance writer and communications specialist, and former reporter and broadcaster who is a health enthusiast. She writes a twice-monthly column focusing on wellness and fitness.