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Meet the Energizer Bunny of Madison County

By Aaron Gifford

At 79, Josie Howlett leads bone builder exercise sessions, tai chi for arthritis workshops, and was recently certified to teach yoga. “She just keeps going — and our community benefits,” says a local official
Josie Howlett was not an athletic type growing up but got interested in wellness and exercise after she took some classes. “I loved the classes, but I felt like I could do more,” she says. “Also, I loved helping people. Helping people helps me. So I decided to get certified.”

Growing up, Josie Howlett was not too keen on physical education. She was never a star athlete or a marathon runner. And yet, as an older adult she leads the way in showing her peers how to stay fit, mobile and vibrant going into their twilight years.

“I was the shyest person in the world, and I hated gym class,” the Bouckville resident recalled with a laugh. “The only sport I liked was badminton.”

At 79, Howlett is a shining example that where you’ve been is not always as important as where you’re going. In her case, it is a matter of making sure her fellow seniors can stand on their tip toes to reach for things in higher places, and bend down to pick up anything that falls on the floor. Then the focus increases to maintaining muscles and bones and hopefully being able to recover from a fall with the long-term goal of remaining independent long-term.

In Madison County, Howlett is the Energizer bunny. She leads bone builder exercise sessions, tai chi for arthritis workshops, and was recently certified to teach yoga. She already has multiple fitness instruction credentials and at one point was so popular that she was hosting courses in every corner of the county.

“She just keeps going — and our community benefits,” said Annette Clark, director of Madison County Office for the Aging’s Retired Senior Volunteer program director. Howlett has shared her time with the organization for 12 years now. She earned certified fitness trainer credentials at the age of 70.

Shortly after her retirement from a long career as a medical record transcriber, Howlett decided to attend a bone builders exercise class. She was hesitant to do so, having never been a fan of fitness, but she was worried about hereditary osteoporosis.

The instructor, who was 80, had an infectious personality. Howlett was immediately hooked.

“I loved the classes, but I felt like I could do more,” she said. “Also, I loved helping people. Helping people helps me. So I decided to get certified. Once in a while I’ll see someone on Facebook who is 94 years old and still doing this. That’s what keeps me going.”

Howlett instructs three bone builders classes per week. In the past, she has instructed as many as four per week. Her most popular site is Perryville, a small hamlet between Cazenovia and Chittenango. On any given session, Howlett leads an audience of a dozen or more. Bone builders consists of functional exercises, often incorporating the use of weights, to help seniors stay limber and move to the best of their ability.

One of Howlett’s favorite regulars was a 96-year-old blind woman (now deceased). The instructor has always maintained a good sense of humor and keeps the classes fun. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Howlett taught classes via Zoom meetings. She is currently halfway through an ongoing session of tai chi classes, four weeks down, four more to go.

While the main aim of tai chi for seniors is to help manage arthritis, Howlett emphasizes that the movements are also excellent for maintaining balance.

Howlett has not started her yoga instruction yet, but she’s excited to offer something that might be the exact fit for many people.

“With tai chi, you can get the same results as yoga, but it’s gentler. But at the same time, I think there are some folks who want something that is more challenging, like yoga,” she said.

Regardless of the class type, Howlett’s goal is to get as many older adults as possible to keep moving.

“Muscles are the movers of your body,” she said. “People think just going up and down the stairs is enough. It isn’t.”

Howlett recommends walking and exercising with resistance bands. Getting enough calcium and watching portion sizes at meal time is also very important. She has regular bone density scans, and is proud to report that her scans are improving due to her fitness levels.

Osteoporosis is a condition that causes bones to weaken and even become brittle. Age is a significant factor as bone tissue is constantly being broken down and replaced, and over time it’s difficult for new bone tissue to keep up with the loss of old bone tissue. According to the Mayo Clinic, osteoporosis-related factures most commonly occur in the hip, wrist or spine.

The condition affects men and women, but the highest risk is among post-menopausal white and Asian women, according to the Mayo Clinic. A healthy diet, certain medications and weight-bearing exercises like the ones taught in bone builders classes can prevent bone loss and strengthen existing bones.

The American Bone Health organization website provides comprehensive resources to learn more about osteoporosis and other bone conditions that affect older adults. It notes that the “T score” is an essential tool for post-menopausal women to detect their risk of bone density problems, and the “Z score” is a tool that can be used by children, young adults, men younger than 50, and pre-menopausal women. The organization also has a 10-year fracture risk calculator that is recommended for all men and women older than 45.

Visit Americanbonehealth.org for more information.