If they gave out Olympic medals for healthy habits, Judy Weckenman could claim the gold.
For 50 years, he took a one-hour walk every day.
Rain or shine. On hot, steamy days. Cold snowshoes. Seven days a week.
That’s more than 18,000 walks over the past five decades.
Now 80, Judy shows no signs of slowing down.
“I’ll walk until I can’t walk,” he said. “I don’t feel good without it.”
To her doctor, Judy is a shining example of healthy aging.
“I love seeing patients in their final stages of life who are just thriving, physically, mentally, mentally, and socially,” says Christine Jacob, MD, internal medicine and pediatrics at Corewell Health. “Judy really embodies that.”
Many factors can affect how we age, he said.
But a healthy habit like Judy’s daily walk has many benefits. It can promote physical health, mental health and cognitive performance.
Asked to talk about her healthy habits, Judy was amused and wondered what all the fuss was about. But as a retired nurse who once worked in a nursing home, she remembers how much she learned from her elderly patients.
So he sat in his living room one day, tall, slim and looking 10 years younger than his age, and imparted his secrets, from genetics to lifestyle.
“On my mother’s side, they lived a long time. From my father’s side, not so much,” he said.
She hopes to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who lived to be 97, and her aunt, who lived to be 93.
“I hope I have good genes,” he said. “But you are also part of the solution. Your genes only go so far.”
About those walks
After the birth of her youngest son 50 years ago, Judy began walking for an hour every day with her sister Bonnie Christensen and friend Bertha Apsey.
They varied what time they walked depending on their family schedules. But they decided to match that daily dose of exercise.
There were big and small changes in those years.
Judy’s three children grew up. Now he has four grandchildren.
When she was 46 and her sister Bonnie was 51, they went to college and became licensed practical nurses.
Judy worked for 17 years before retiring.
And 13 years ago, Judy lost her beloved husband, Joe, to bladder cancer.
They were married 47 years before her death.
For more than 50 years, the trio has shared all of their milestones, joyous celebrations and heartbreaking losses, as well as the small details that make up everyday life.
That social connection can be just as beneficial as the cardiovascular fitness, balance and strength that come from exercise, Dr. Jacobs said.
“Loneliness is truly a public health crisis in this country,” she said. “I was struck by the research that really speaks to how loneliness or being socially connected can be an independent factor that affects physical health.”
The women became known in their neighborhood as “walkers”.
A man recently drove up to say hello. He had just returned to the neighborhood after a 10-year absence.
“He couldn’t believe we were still walking,” Judy said.
On the menu
In addition to exercise, Judy emphasizes a healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.
She makes her own bread, rarely buys it from the grocery store.
In her fridge, she keeps a mix of ground chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp hearts, wheat germ, almonds and walnuts. She adds it to her morning oatmeal along with a bowl of berries and a banana.
Lunch includes more fruits and vegetables. For dinner, he eats colorful vegetables, often with fish. Dinner twice a week is vegetarian.
He enjoys hamburgers when he goes out to eat, but in general he eats little red meat.
“I eat a lot of nuts,” she added. “If someone said I had to choose meat or nuts, I would choose nuts.”
Almost every night she gives her favorite treat, ice cream.
“When I was little, I would eat it out of the box,” she said with a laugh. “Now that I’m getting older, I measure it up.”
Curiosity and learning are also part of Judy’s daily life.
Travel books line the shelves in her living room, next to mementos from her travels: a picture of a French city, wooden flowers from Ecuador.
He traveled extensively with his sister Bonnie and other family members.
“The fun thing about traveling is the more you go, the more you understand what you haven’t seen,” he said.
He reads a lot and watches movies, often shares his observations with his friends on Facebook. He attends lectures and takes trips with the local senior center, including a recent visit to a Van Gogh exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“This is probably one of the best times to be old,” he said. “It’s a lot better than it was 20 or 30 years ago. There is much more for us to do.”
Taking that first step
“Eighty percent of the burden of chronic disease is caused by lifestyle factors,” says Carolyn Vollmer, MD, Corewell Health lifestyle medicine specialist.
“And we know that lifestyle habits like eating a good healthy diet, exercising daily, getting restorative sleep, engaging in cognitive activities, and finding time to rest are all factors that can reduce the risk of disease and cognitive decline as we age.”
Judy’s commitment to a healthy lifestyle is “one of the things that contributed to the profound quality of her life,” Dr. Vollmer said.
But even if you haven’t racked up decades of daily walks, you can still reap the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s never too late to start,” said Dr. Vollmer. “Exercise improves your health exponentially in a positive way. The more you do, the more benefits you see.”
Research has shown that a 30-minute walk a day can reduce the risk of cognitive decline.
“But you don’t have to start with 30 minutes, five days a week,” Dr. Vollmer said. “You can start with five minutes a day and work up from there.”
He has seen patients in their 70s make health changes that have resulted in weight loss and disease reversal.
“You just have to be motivated,” he said. “Find your reason why you want to do it.”
Changes with time
Judy’s walking routine has changed a bit over the years. His sister Bonnie no longer joins him, but he still walks with his friend Bertha.
On snowy days, if they can’t see the ground, they don’t walk on the street. They make their way around Judy’s yard.
And, on rare occasions, they miss a day.
“The only thing that’s going to stop us is the ice,” Judy said. “I can’t do this anymore. The worst thing for an old person is to fall.
But even on icy days, they explore their options before canceling a ride. Sometimes a cleared parking lot will do.
“I love being outside,” Judy said. “I need that fresh air.”
Four years ago, she started wearing a Fitbit watch that tracks her steps, which total 35 to 40 miles a week. And every hour, nine hours a day, it reminds him to take at least 250 steps.
“One has to move throughout the day,” he said. “Being sedentary is probably one of the worst things we can do to our bodies.”
Open-air. Clean air. Movement and social connection. All those factors make him walk.
And beneath those healthy habits is a deep appreciation for life.
“I don’t think you should take your life lightly,” he said. “My life is a gift and it is valuable to me.”