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NEA-Retired Member Susan Feiner playing pickleball
Cover Story

Did Someone Say Pickleball?

Swat, bounce, punch, or pose! Find out how to pump up the fun in your fitness routine.

The best exercise for older adults—or for anyone, for that matter—is the exercise that you’ll do. And that means finding something you enjoy.

Is it pickleball—like 36.5 million other Americans? Is it touring a local waterway on a stand-up paddleboard, an activity that has exploded in popularity? Or is it the latest trend in studio workouts? 

During the pandemic, our fitness routines changed. Forced out of our indoor Pilates studios and Silver Sneakers classes, millions of people picked up pickleball paddles. 

Millions more walked and walked and walked some more, often egged on by Fitbits and Apple Watches, to “get their steps in.”

Today, the fitness landscape looks different for people of all ages. Here, a few retired educators share why they get excited about exercise. You may just discover a new fitness passion!

Get pickleballing

NEA-Retired member Susan Feiner socializing with her pickleball friends.
NEA-Retired member Susan Feiner socializing with her pickleball friends. Credit: Kevin Brusie Photography

Susan Feiner was an avid tennis player—until she blew out her elbow in 2019. Today, she’s swinging a paddle instead, but having a thousand times more fun. “Every other activity … most of the time, it’s, when is this going to be over?” she says.

But not pickleball. Not only is it great exercise—shown to improve cardiovascular health and endurance—it’s also “just really, really fun,” says Feiner, who retired in 2018 as an economics professor at the University of Southern Maine. 

Invented in 1965, pickleball is currently the fastest-growing sport in the U.S. Played on small courts, usually by two teams of two people, the sport is especially social. 

“The most fun is what’s called ‘open play,’” Feiner says. “You go to the court and stack your paddle. When somebody finishes on the court, the first person waiting goes in. … That’s very fun, very easy, and very, very social. That’s how you’re going to learn.”

For aging people, it’s a good fit, says Feiner, who will turn 70 this year. 

“It’s kind of hard to hurt yourself!” she says. Along with the cardio benefits, pickleball’s quick, rotational movements offer strength and balance training. And, because it’s so social, it also helps with mental health issues that can be exacerbated by isolation. 

How you can get started: Look for an inexpensive paddle, recommends Feiner. Unless you’re playing competitively, you don’t need to spend a lot of money. Then look at your local YMCA or parks department for intro classes, and check for local groups on Facebook, she says. 

Words of encouragement: “I’ve had more fun in a year of pickleball than I had in 20 years of tennis—and tennis is fun!” Feiner says.

Roll with the punches

Donna Nielsen posing with boxing gloves in front of a heavy bag.
Former school bus driver Donna Nielsen’s boxing workouts strengthen her arms, legs, and core. Credit: Mariah Karson

At 73 years old, Donna Nielsen knows how to throw a left hook. The retired school bus driver grew up with four brothers. She wishes she knew then what she knows now. “Where was this when I was young?” she laughs.

For the past year, Nielsen has been training for two to three hours, twice a week, at Rock Steady Boxing, in La Porte, Ind., where programs are designed for people with Parkinson’s disease. 

“I found out about it at this place where I go for massage therapy, and I thought, “This is going to be a lark!” Nielsen recalls.

Nielsen retired six years ago; a year later, at age 68, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. She says deep brain stimulation has been “a godsend,” but she knows that regular exercise is key to physical and mental well-being.

During workouts, Nielsen puts on a pair of 8-ounce boxing gloves and punches for 4-minute intervals. 

“Uppercuts, straight punches—[the instructors] call them out, and you do it!” she says. Often, she aims for her instructor’s sparring mitts. “Yesterday, he had those mitts on, and I told him, ‘You better hope I don’t miss!’”

Donna Nielsen

“It’s kind of fun to punch something. It works out a lot of frustration. … If you go in there and you’re honked off about something, you can sweat it out!”

—Donna Nielsen

Sometimes instructors will add a mental task like counting backwards from 100 by threes, and the boxers simultaneously talk and jab. In the end, Nielsen leaves sweaty—and often laughing. “It’s a riot!” she promises. 

How you can get started: Many fitness clubs and gyms offer boxing workouts, including some tailored toward women’s empowerment. 

Words of encouragement: “It’s kind of fun to punch something,” Nielsen says. “It works out a lot of frustration, I’ll tell you that! If you go in there and you’re honked off about something, you can sweat it out!” 

Hit the barre

After Joyce Bailey “officially” retired from teaching—and then retired again from her union work and a second job as a paraeducator—she finally tried yoga. And Pilates. And then barre classes.

Caucasian male and female Seniors dancing in a studio holding a barre

“They totally overlap—but each also offers something different,” she says. Yoga focuses on flexibility and balance. Pilates is all about strength, especially core strength. Barre has all of that, with a dose of cardio.

The barre refers to an actual bar that runs along the studio wall, often held for balance during exercises. 

Joyce Bailey

“You can easily get  into bad habits when you retire—and not do anything.”

—Joyce Bailey 

Bailey, who taught music, west of Chicago but was never a dancer, enjoys it so much that she became an instructor in the Florida Gulf Coast community where she spends the winter. 

“The whole thing is that there’s always a modification you can do. I’m having a lot of knee issues with arthritis and such, and you just modify a little bit,” she says.

How you can get started: Bailey’s studios are welcoming places, with people who have become friends. Look for something close to home or try online classes. You can use the back of a chair as a barre, she suggests. 

Words of encouragement: “You can easily get into bad habits when you retire—and not do anything,” she says. Give something a try, she says, and if you don’t like that, try something else. 

Get a yin for yoga! 

JoAnn Kenner flexing her muscles on the track.
“Thank God for modern science!” JoAnn Kenner says. She walks daily on two replacement hips—and practices yoga. Credit: Mariah Karson

JoAnn Kenner walks daily and frequently bounces on a mini-trampoline that she keeps around the house. “I go by it when I’m doing laundry … and I jump on!” she says. 

But the 80-year-old’s true love is yoga. “My thing is, you need strength training, and you need something for flexibility—you can’t be just running or just walking.”

Even in this world of emerging fitness trends, what’s old is sometimes best, she says. 

“If I could tell everybody to do one thing, it’d be the five Tibetan rites,” she says, referring to a sequence of five movements that are reportedly 2,500 years old. “Google it! They’re amazing,” she urges.

How you can get started: With yoga, there’s something for everybody, Kenner says. “Hot yoga. Gentle yoga. Yoga with straps—that’s similar to Pilates. Goat yoga! I haven’t tried that one yet, but I might,” she says. Try one, then try another!

Words of encouragement: “[Yoga] is like an old friend. You may step away, but it will welcome you back!” Kenner says.

Librarian leans over seated students at the library who are reading a book

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