“Meet me at the Plaza,” my daughter texted me. Coming from the West Side it was about a one-mile walk. My Long Island City gal would have a younger, longer haul across the 59th Street Bridge. With no cars on the road, I could have strolled right down the middle of Central Park South. It was March 28, 2020. The faint roar from Mt. Sinai’s mortuary truck generators broke the morning silence.
We smiled greetings from afar, taking a moment to remove masks, absorb whole faces. Exchanging gifts, she gave me disposable masks, and I shared some aloe and rubbing alcohol to make homemade hand sanitizer.
We knew we’d go crazy if we stayed inside, saw no one, did nothing.
Two and a half years, 633 million cases, 7 million deaths and 12.7 billion vaccines later, a yield of megadata reveals that being with others and staying active are critical for your health.
The risk of loneliness is in the “same category as smoking 15 cigarettes a day and being an alcoholic,” according to studies. Isolation increases your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, infectious illness, cognitive deterioration and death. It’s also associated with higher blood pressure and higher inflammation reactions to stress.
What’s the prescription? Walking and talking. Being outside with less germy spread allows seniors to get together. Walking around the park and talking to people, any people, is good for you.
Step On It!
Manhattan’s outdoor exercise coaches enrich and improve our health. Recent data suggests a daily step count of around 6,000 to 8,000 steps for older adults and 8,000 to 10,000 to be healthy. Coach Nereida Munoz gathers us together for a brisk walk around Central Park and offers an ideal way to socialize safely. Nereida, who is known by her first name, was hired to lead Striders (senior walking get-togethers) by New York Road Runners, the organization that hosts the New York Marathon and a slew of races and programs. The cost is far less than lunch with the ladies. It’s free!
This best kept senior city secret has two requirements: sign up and show up. You’ll find us with our Striders T shirts on, exercising while chatting with occasional stops at the public loos. I’m not sure if we’re better at out-talking or out-walking one another.
“Reach! Reach!” calls out Nereida and we obey, waking up the arm and shoulder muscles. There’s a burr of conversation and the smell of fall and a slight slip of path to keep our eye on as we get ready. The enormous golden maple nearby also seems to be spreading limbs toward the sky, leaves partially strewn about her feet where we pause to do our warmup stretches.
The Engineer’s Gate Striders group (90th and Fifth Avenue) was once topping 60 or so walkers every Tuesday at 10 a.m. Post COVID, it’s dropped to about 12-25 or so, but is experiencing a regrowth as the regulars return and new members join. The demographic is about 70% women 30% men. The age leans toward those who went to Woodstock (or who wanted to). The Columbus Circle walking group (60th and Columbus Circle) meets Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and is also seeing their numbers rise every week.
NY1 recently interviewed Nereida’s co-coach Benjamin Naverette (who ran his 152nd marathon last week) as well as Nereida and her walking posse.
From Jog to Run
Nereida has been running, Olympic walking and working the races and marathons for decades. Before her coaching career, she worked in the corporate office of an up and coming company, Foot Locker. Free sneakers and swag were part of the perks. Exercising was instilled in the company culture. “I might as well do some running or something with these free shoes,” she thought. After work, she began to jog, and then to run.
She turned to a running coach, who later became a mentor, to improve her timing. Eager to add even more of an edge, she began learning speed walking as well, a strategy to improve her time when she ran out of steam during a long-distance run. Lon Wilson, former national masters 50K racewalk champion, was her trainer. He’s the Executive Director of the New York Walkers Club where they use the Olympic walking technique that requires keeping one foot on the ground at all times.
“I began to be asked to fill in for Lon,” explained Nereida. That’s when her coaching career began. She found she enjoyed it, and when NYRR hired her as a senior coach for the Striders, it was a logical transition.
“I guess I’ve always been a teacher,” says Nereida. In her corporate job she was the go-to person for all things spreadsheet and software- related. She brought her sharp eye for detail and ability to explain in an easy-to-understand way to her current job.
Among other places you can find Coach Nereida on the marathon sidelines yelling, “Stick! Stick!” for runners who need a stick massage on their legs at the 13th or 20th mile mark on the road to the finish line. Like a marathon runner, her path is long, her pace steady, and seems never to end.
Including in the brisk walk and vibrant chatter, Nereida insists on a warmup and cool-down. Unfortunately, I didn’t do these muscle stretching exercises with all my other city strolls and developed plantar fasciitis. I’m booted and shamed. Do the prep work before a long stroll.
“More Walk Less Talk!”
Coach Nereida is also bilingual and she was called in as a substitute to lead a salsa exercise class for the Central Park Foundation, in Spanish. “It was a great way to switch it up, exercise-wise,” she said.
I’m not alone in seeking Nereida’s walks. She has a following because of her warmups, cool downs, and prodding holler, “Less talk more walk!” to lollygaggers. She keeps the health train running on time. “Over the years I’ve learned to be more assertive,” she told me. “Sometimes people need a little nudge for their own good.”
“My mission for my walkers is moving and socializing. Road Runners has adopted some of my techniques seeing results in my walkers.” She added, “It makes me smile when I see some of our Striders at an outdoor café, post-exercise, laughing together. This group helps you stay healthy and make new friends.”
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be sitting at home,” Nereida says. “My job keeps me healthy.”
“Over the years I’ve learned to be more assertive. Sometimes people need a little nudge for their own good.” Coach Nereida Munoz