SALT LAKE CITY — Three times a week, Pat Wilson laces up her teal sneakers, sticks a visor over her short brown hair and heads to Liberty Park.
Nobody seems to notice the three retirees gathered around a park bench on a crisp Wednesday morning going through their quiet stretching ritual. The day's goal is one loop around the park at an energetic pace, 1.3 miles.
Walking is their way of beating the aches and pains that have set in over time: Creaking joints, tender knees, fatigue, malaise and arthritis. Many are overweight. Some have battled diabetes.
"All my hobbies are inside," explains Wilson, who loves sewing, crocheting and reading. She and her husband Les are in their fifth week of Walk With Ease, a free exercise program offered by Salt Lake County to older adults who want to tackle arthritis.
She is overweight and is concerned about stiffness in her joints, especially because her family has a history of diabetes. Les Wilson, who has significant pain in his left knee and is also overweight, admits he has "a tendency to sit in one place for hours, moving only my fingers."
Their son was a championship long-distance runner. Their daughter a track and field athlete — hurdles. But here the two parents were, unable to walk and talk at the same time without huffing and puffing.
Walk With Ease is simple: Three times a week, adults gather at the park or at the senior center for a brisk group walk of 1 to 2 miles, each person moving at their own speed.
Wilson set off at a vigorous pace Wednesday morning, although she quickly fell behind her husband and the instructor.
As she walked, a tiny older woman in yoga pants zoomed past her, then a mother and little girl on a pink bike, several runners, then two guys with a dog, then two dogs with a guy.
At first it bothered Wilson that she was so slow — usually the slowest in the group. "But then I decided to heck with it," she said. "I've got a short stride. I'm overweight."
Gone are the days when health care providers used to tell people to "rest their joints" for fear that exercise would worsen the wear-and-tear loss of cartilage until bone grinds against bone.
Now research shows that physical activity like walking, biking and swimming is needed to strengthen the muscles around the joints. Weak muscles cause more stress on joints. Moderate exercise — ideally at least 30 minutes a day five days a week — improves function, decreases pain and can help patients lose weight. Shedding even 10 to 15 pounds can significantly reduce the risk of developing arthritis, according to studies.
"Motion is lotion," said Utah Department of Health arthritis coordinator Rebecca Castleton. However, many patients do not exercise because it can be so painful at first, she said.
A recent survey showed that nearly half of Utah adults with arthritis say they limit their activities due to their condition.
"Maybe the goal right now isn't to have a beach body but to be able to be more functional," Castleton said. "Maybe it's to feel more able to do things with my kids or grandkids or my friends."
Wilson isn't looking to get a "bottom like J.Lo." She and her husband signed up for Walk With Ease at the 10th East Senior Center because they were both retired and out of shape.
Retirement wasn't what Wilson thought it would be. She imagined she'd have time to finish all her projects. She imagined she'd do what her mom did — visit family and take care of grandbabies.
But her kids and grandkids are scattered across the country. Restlessness set in, then inertia. Health problems became more frequent: Her husband battled diabetes. They gained weight.
"I found it hard, that transition," she said.
Neither wanted to become invisible. Wilson didn't want her and her husband to sequester themselves in their home and fade away.
Out of a determination to fully understand what happens when you age, Wilson signed up for an interdisciplinary master's program in gerontology at the University of Utah.
The first class? "Death, Dying and Bereavement.” Heavy stuff, but Wilson said she found it freeing.
"Our society doesn't talk about (aging)," she said. "They ask questions like, 'Am I financially ready?' To me, you need to worry about the mental part. What do you do with yourself? You need a passion. You need a reason to get up in the morning."
Many older adults with physical ailments or disabilities can feel isolated or useless, Castleton said. Others feel as though they can't open up to friends or family members for fear of being seen as a bother or a pain.
Both exercise and socialization, Castleton said, can improve confidence and lift spirits.
"Once people feel more confident, it impacts multiple areas of their lives as far as health goes,” she said. “Higher self-advocacy, more able to do things. It's kind of like a support group without totally being a support group."
James Dracoulis, a 65-year-old Air Force veteran from Provo who has battled depression for decades, said the program helps with his mental health.
"You get this idea that you're a failure," Dracoulis said, after being medically retired in his 40s. "It's really tempting to just watch TV and be a couch potato.”
He joined the Walk With Ease program at Salt Lake City’s veteran’s hospital after the ache in his knees became too painful to ignore.
"I've never really liked doing any kind of exercise," he said. "So I said, 'Well, at least I can do 10 minutes at a time and improve from that.'"
After completing the six-week program three times, Dracoulis said the pain in his knees "just started going away." He now tracks his daily physical activity with his Fitbit. His goal is to get at least 7,000 steps a day.
Dracoulis said he appreciates the program’s focus on moderate — not intense — exercise. And he likes to socialize while he walks, usually around the neighborhood near the VA.
"It's a group class and we talk while we're walking. and it really passes the time," Dracoulis said. "Whereas walking by yourself, it can be OK, but it can also be nicer to have partners."
"You get to see what homes look like, how they're built, the gardens," he added. "Right now you can see what they're planting. It's enjoying the beauty of the Earth."
The Wilsons, now on their fifth week of the program, say they hope they can keep it up after it ends. Both say they feel a huge difference in strength and ability. Les Wilson says the pain in his knee joints has almost disappeared.
In many ways, studying death and dying was a way to regain control over aging, Pat Wilson said — a process that can often feel like it is overtaking you. Supported by her studies, Wilson planned her own funeral. She started a gratitude journal. And she walks.
She’s not the fastest, but it’s like instructor Julie Jacobsen tells them: “Even though it’s uncomfortable, you walk through it.”
As part of her final project for her gerontology degree, Wilson made a CD of the most meaningful songs of her life. She got the idea after learning that music can trigger memories and improve cognitive function in dementia patients.
On went the Primary songs from her childhood. On went "Moon River" from her junior prom. On went the round dancing music that served as the backdrop of her 47-year marriage. Every so often, Wilson listens to the CD, just to experience the memories.
Exercise for the brain. Exercise for the body. Exercise for the soul.
"I'm out of shape, no question about it," Wilson said, as she rounds another bend before a horde of fifth-graders mows her down on their way to the aviary. "But it's not too late to start anything."
"How you age," she explains, "is a choice."
To register for Walk With Ease or learn about more free arthritis programs, call 801-538-9340 or visit www.livingwell.utah.gov. Walk With Ease classes are available at multiple locations in Salt Lake City and St. George.
The health department sponsors a number of free programs designed to help with arthritis in addition to Walk with Ease, including balance, flexibility and self-management classes.