Are you too old to get healthy? Making healthy changes in your 80s.

Aug. 31, 2022
Richard Dickson started working out in the pool four years ago as a way to get exercise without the strain on his joints.
Richard Dickson started working out in the pool four years ago as a way to get exercise without the strain on his joints. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Richard Dickson is in the pool, following an instructor’s moves, a few times a week.

It’s helped him strengthen his core and improve circulation. He feels terrific in and out of the water, but that wasn’t always the case.

“When I started with water exercise, it was a major production just to get dressed and undressed,” Dickson said.

He was overweight, his joints never stopped hurting and everyday tasks were grueling, taking much longer to complete.

At age 81, Dickson decided he had lived in pain long enough; it was time to make significant lifestyle changes.

“You’re never too old,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to see my friends do it. They have a massive heart attack and have to make those changes. They might not return to where they were, but they live good lives because of those changes.”

Luckily, Dickson never had a heart attack, but he made a decision to choose to live healthier. It was time, so he sought support from his primary care physician and a physical therapist.

Richard is in the pool doing exercises. he made healthy changes in his 80s and believes you are not too old to get healthy.
Richard Dickson attends a water exercise class four days a week at Genesis Health Club in Fort Collins, instructed by Marla Empfield. That, along with healthy eating, keeps his pain away. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Never too old to get healthy

Richard Dickson. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

In his late 70s, the 6-foot-2 Dickson weighed 298 pounds. He had a 53-inch waist and a BMI of 38. Four previous back surgeries left him with chronic pain and after surgery following a tibia fracture, his leg would swell a few times a month. He also had limited ability in his shoulder after rotator cuff surgery and because of deteriorating health, he was on six different medications.

In 2016, after the death of his wife of 60 years, Dickson decided to move from his long-time home in Oklahoma to Colorado to be closer to his daughter. He settled into an independent living community. Eating in a dining room was easier than cooking for one, but he was saddled by chronic pain, which limited physical activity.

Dickson vowed to make changes. Longevity, after all, was in his genes. His mother lived until the age of 98, and his sister is alive and well at 93. Initially, his doctor recommended an inflammation-reducing diet and referred him to a physical therapist.

Kick-starting a physical exercise routine

UCHealth physical therapist Kristine VonNieda first met Dickson in August 2017 to help him with hip pain. He was so impressed with her skills and directions that he returned to her in January 2018 to address his lower back pain. He told her he wanted to lose weight and gain more mobility, but he needed help.

“I usually see older adults because of joint pain, weakness, deconditioning and/or balance issues,” VonNieda said. “The important thing as you age is to stay physically active. If you lose your strength and endurance, it typically continues. But you can halt the deterioration. It’s crucial to find a way to move daily. You’ve got to keep moving.”

Because Dickson had so much joint pain, VonNieda recommended he try water exercise. It offers physical strengthening and aerobic training without adding stress and pressure to the joints.

“Daily walks with strengthening exercises three times a week is easiest, but if you can’t walk, water is wonderful because it takes away pain from your weight-bearing joints,” VonNieda said. “It’s a great alternative to a walking program.”

Dickson took VonNieda’s advice and began attending water exercise classes five days a week. He eliminated processed foods from his diet and toyed with a plant-based, organic diet to help with inflammation.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” Dickson said about his progress. “But there were changes I would notice and others that happened, but I wouldn’t notice right away. I never got in a hurry. I just accepted what progress I made.”

Two years into his lifestyle change, Dickson had lost about 50 pounds. Around the same time, by chance, he met a like-minded soul at his church.

Richard and Lois Dickson. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

“Lois was in the same frame of mind, so we fit together well,” Dickson said.

The two were good for each other. They always nudged each other to make healthy choices and when Dickson didn’t feel like going to the gym, Lois didn’t let him off the hook.

By November 2019, they were more than gym buddies. That month, they became husband and wife, and Lois “skipped’’ down the aisle on her wedding day, joined by her four daughters as “Going to the Chapel’’ by the Dixie Cups played overhead.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has paid off and helped them keep up with their 23 great-grandchildren.

“We are not perfect,” Lois said. “The first year was hard, but we got into a routine.”

The two adopted a stricter organic (primarily plant-based) diet than Dickson had been doing alone. Lois admits that it took a while to learn where to purchase the best groceries and understand what they should and shouldn’t eat. Over time, they learned new recipes, experimenting and substituting healthier food options when they could. When they go out to eat, they check the menu ahead of time to make sure of options to fit their diet.

They bought a treadmill during the pandemic but are now back in their gym, where Dickson continues his water exercises. Lois works out in the gym most days, but joins Dickson in the pool one day a week.

Richard Dickson works out four days a week at the Genesis Health Club’s pool in Fort Collins. Photo by Joel Blocker, for UCHealth.

Health changes at any age can make a difference

Dickson is happy to report he is off his medications, including any for pain. He weighs 210 pounds, has a waist size of 38, and BMI of 27. His shoulder is almost back to full strength, and his leg no longer swells up.

“Water exercise has strengthened my core so much that I no longer have any back pain,” he said.

A few months ago, he had an issue with his left hip muscles, so he again asked his primary care doctor for a referral to physical therapy. There was only one PT he wanted to see.

VonNieda said she barely recognized Dickson when he showed up for his appointment. She could not help but invoke the words of UCHealth’s vision, to move people from health care to health.

“Those words could not be more fitting for Dickson,” she said. “Dickson is living proof. He approached the later phase of his life and turned things around.”

Dickson’s story is testament that change is possible at any life stage.

“You can get stronger at any age,” VonNieda said. “You can gain strength. You can gain mobility. I hear it all the time: ‘I’m in pain because I’m old.’ But that’s not necessarily the case, nor does it need to be.”

Just ask Dickson.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.