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While the fountain of youth has never been found, there is such a thing as “healthy aging.”  Today, through research studies and health records analyses, most medical and fitness experts have found the secret to healthy aging and longevity.  It’s not magic, it’s evidence-based, and it’s pretty simple: eat healthy, get enough sleep, don’t smoke.  

But the number one thing experts recommend is to keep your body active, and just as important, connect with other people. Isolation and loneliness are as detrimental to our health as smoking.  

Luckily, here in Athens, a variety of outdoor activities combine exercise with socializing.  

Kayaking – no age limit

By Jim Thompson

Erase from your mind any images of plunging recklessly through frothing white river water, paddling against an unforgiving current as if your life depended on it. In the Athens area and much of the rest of Georgia, kayaking can be done on many easy flowing, “flat” rivers, or calm lakes, providing a chance for reflection and contemplation in a peaceful encounter with nature. 

For proof, look no further than Cindy Barber and Cynthia Cox, two local women who have been kayaking for years. Now 69, Barber said her start in kayaking was an effort to bring some serious change into her life. 

“I was reinventing myself,” she said. In 2016, she began taking kayaking lessons on the Chattahoochee River. Her daughter bought her a pink kayak, which she still uses. The kayak has earned her a nickname among fellow kayakers. 

“I’m called ‘Pinky’ on the river,” she said. “They don’t know me when I’m not in my boat.” 

Unlike Barber, Cox, now 62, grew up kayaking on the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia but says, “I’m far more into kayaking now in my older age than I was when I was younger.” 

Both Cox and Barber stress the spiritual aspects of getting into a kayak and enjoying a day on a slow-moving river. Both women also noted that physical limitations need not deter people from kayaking. 

“Once you’re in your kayak and you’re out there on the river, it is so opening and so ‘releasing,’ and you’re just breathing differently,” Cox said. “People don’t do that kind of thing enough, and I think when you start doing it, it does something to your attitude. It does something to how you feel about life in general.” 

According to the two women, people need not be in tip-top physical condition to try kayaking on a flat river. Barber takes advantage of a local Silver Sneakers fitness program to keep her arms and legs limber but adds that kayaking “is really not a big workout if you’re just paddling. You get tired, but it’s doable.” 

According to Barber, the biggest workout in kayaking is getting the kayak off and back on the vehicle that gets it to the water. That’s one reason both women advise kayaking with a group, or on trips offered through outfitters like Broad River Outpost in Danielsville or Big Dogs on the River in Athens. 

“There’s enough people in the business that will get you where you need to go and help you,” Barber said. 

The social aspect 

There are two organizations you should know about: The Georgia River Network (GRN), a nonprofit working to protect the state’s rivers, and Splashdown Shared Interest Group, affiliated with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).  

The River Network, based right here in Athens, offers introductory kayak classes around the state, instructor certifications, and approximately 10 trips a year, including Paddle Georgia, a weeklong exploration each summer of a single river.  

“I’m guessing that on our (Paddle Georgia) trips, at least 50% of participants are over 50,” says Joe Cook, former executive director and now coordinator of the trip. 

That number can include people up to age 80, he added.  

Kayaking on flat rivers, Cook said, is “a low-impact activity you can do well into your senior years.” 

Cook himself turns 58 this year, and said, “I fully plan to keep paddling until they pry the paddle out of my hands.” 

There’s also a social benefit to participating in a Paddle Georgia trip. “You make great friends,” Cook said, because even on the river, “you have a lot of time to talk to other people.” 

The introductory classes the organization holds are at various on-the-water locations around the state, including Dahlonega, Acworth, and Savannah this year. They teach basic paddle strokes, how to stay less “tippy” on the water, and how to paddle for long distances without harming your arm muscles. You can also learn about kayaking gear and trip planning. 

Another valuable tool from the Georgia River Network for people interested in kayaking is its online “immersive maps” Earthviews Overview Map that allow kayakers to digitally explore rivers they may want to try. They have also developed a water trails map that covers the state.  

“Being in nature restores us, and being on a moving river is an experience that can transform people,” Cook concluded. “We’ve seen that happen on our paddle trips. It changes your outlook on things.” 


This group will give you a gentle introduction to the activity as well as an opportunity for sustained participation on the water. There is a $70 annual fee to participate in OLLI, but from there, participation in Splashdown is free. 

Briefly, participants can take advantage of monthly kayaking trips, weather permitting, along with other kayaking – and canoeing – activities around Athens. 

Excursions are held only on smooth, easy-flowing water, explained Gary Whiting, who helps coordinate Splashdown. 

Whiting, 68, has been kayaking since he was 10 and growing up on a lake in southern New Jersey.  

“I think it requires a person with a sense of adventure,” to try kayaking, Whiting said. Most Splashdown activities are conducted almost exclusively on north Georgia Rivers with outfitters that rent kayaks, so participants need not invest in one themselves. The group currently has 90 participants, with about 30 who paddle frequently with the group.  

Recognizing that some people interested in kayaking may face physical limitations that might keep them from trying the sport, Splashdown offers gentle introductory activities on Lake Chapman at Sandy Creek Park. 

Those activities, Whiting explained, offer potential kayakers an opportunity to safely assess whether they can sit comfortably in a canoe, whether they can paddle comfortably without overtaxing their arms, or whether they might experience other physical discomfort. 

“We don’t push anybody to get into this sport,” Whiting continued. “It’s always your decision (whether or not) you feel comfortable.” First-time kayakers, Whiting went on to explain, always are paired with more experienced kayakers. 

Like Barber and Cox, Whiting acknowledges that kayaking can impart a Zen-like contentment. “I think it’s a real thing,” he said. “You’re struck by the beauty of nature, and how peaceful and quiet the experience is. You’re gliding through the water, and it’s completely silent.” 

Paddle Georgia 2024 | (706) 549-4508 |

Registration has begun for the 2024 edition of Paddle Georgia. Set for June 15-22, it will involve exploration of the Altamaha River. The 107-mile adventure will include parts of the Oconee and Ohoopee rivers, and a number of creeks on the way to Darien, the coastal Georgia city marking the end of the adventure.

Splashdown/ OLLI | (706) 542-7715 |

“Splashdown” is an OLLI“ shared interest group,” which hosts a monthly kayaking trip, weather permitting, and other kayaking and canoeing opportunities around Athens. There is a $70annual fee to join OLLI, but “Splashdown” is free of charge to its OLLI participants.

Outfitters | Big Dog’s on the River | 2525 Atlanta Highway |

Big Dog’s on the River offers kayaking and tubing trips, with shuttle service, along a 3.5-milesection of the Middle Oconee River. The trip, which takes two to three hours to complete, features some fast-moving shoal sections. The route starts near Vaughn Road and ends south of Atlanta Highway. Check website for rates and other information.

Broad River Outpost | Danielsville |

Reservations are required for the variety of kayaking experiences on the Broad River offered through Broad River Outpost. Through Broad River Outpost, you can choose either a scenic float experience or a beginner whitewater kayaking trip. Solo and tandem sit-on-top or sit-in kayaks are available for rent, and shuttle service is also available. In addition, free camping is provided for paddlers.

Oconee Joe Paddle Co. |

Oconee Joe offers day and multiple-night kayaking trips along various sections of the Upper Oconee River watershed. Trips cover various lengths of the area between Athens and Lake Oconee, with options totaling more than 60 miles. Boats and gear are provided.

Southeast Striders Walking Club

By Betsy Bean

Let’s face it, sometimes walking alone can be boring, particularly if you’re doing more or less the same route each time. Now you have another option. A new group has formed in Athens called the Southeast Striders Walking Club, an affiliate of the American Volkssport Association (AVA), also known as America’s Walking Club (AWC), a national and international nonprofit. Its 200 active clubs in the U.S. encourage noncompetitive walking in groups, comprising all ages and abilities. 

It began in Germany in the late 1960s and was known as “volksmarching,” or people’s march. Villagers would often gather and walk from one village to another together, eat lunch and walk back. Later in the 1970s, American soldiers stationed there brought the concept back.  

Although walking is the primary activity, the volkssporting movement can include other fitness activities such as bicycling and swimming. This international movement is now in 40 countries worldwide.   

Local retirees Harold and Marie Weber were introduced to the concept in Jacksonville, Florida, where they became active.  Now they want to build enthusiasm for noncompetitive fitness walking in Athens.  

“Our mission is to encourage everyone, regardless of fitness level, to get out, exercise and have fun doing it,” says Harold, 76, an AWC-certified trail master.  He has already created four sanctioned 5- and 10-km (3.1 and 6.2 miles) walks in the Athens area, listed at the club’s website, Several start at Sandy Creek Nature Center or Dudley Park in addition to others in Watkinsville, the Firefly Trail, Watson’s Mill State Park, and an Athens Sampler that includes downtown.  

“We always design walks that are out of traffic as much as possible, attractive and safe,” he explained. “These are guided walks, but you walk at your own pace.” 

Participants get printed instructions and sent to their phone. There’s always someone at the rear, called a sweep who makes sure everyone is on track and doesn’t get lost or left behind. The walks take two to three hours so groups might stay together and have lunch afterward.  

“We want to make walking fun and social so people can make new friends,” Weber explains. “The walks also take you places you might otherwise not go. In every walk, you’ll see things that really stand out, and to keep interest, we add different aspects to it, like the waterfall on Carr’s Hill.”  

The walks are described in detail on the website, including whether there are restrooms along the route, pet-friendly, or accessible to strollers or wheelchairs. Various maps, directions and contact information are also provided.  Walks are also rated as to how challenging the route is. Some walks are easy and on flat pavement; others involve hills or stair climbing.  

The 5 and 10k regularly scheduled walks are $4; shorter community walks are free, and Weber encourages new walkers to participate in these to get to know the club. There are two more Guided Walks scheduled through June 8, an introductory walk on April 13 and four self-guided, year-round sanctioned walks listed at the Striders’ website.  

A unique aspect of “volkssporting” is the Achievement Awards Program organized by America’s Walking Club whereby participants may enroll in an incentive awards program, keeping records of distances walked and events completed.  

There’s an Online Start Box, “anybody can use it, create an account, and start walking,” Weber notes. “The organization has a good record keeping system for you to keep track of your sanctioned walks, events you’ve walked, total kilometers, etc.” You don’t have to belong to the club or go on group walks to use the AVA system.  

There are about 2,500 AVA trails throughout the country and numerous walking events listed at the national website that participants can sign up for and get credit upon completion.  

“It’s a great way to explore the country,” Weber says. “Marie and I are about halfway through the state capitals.”  

You can search by state, by event, or by special program such as state capitals, lighthouses, even labyrinths! For instance, the website shows Georgia has 13 sanctioned walks, and in the Special Events section, for instance, the city of Helen is shown holding a major walk event on April 27.  

“Part of the strategy of recordkeeping is that measuring and setting goals is a way to attract people to a new way of life,” Weber explains. “Fitness is something you do the rest of your life.” 

While you don’t have to join the Striders to participate, there is a $15 individual membership fee and $25 for families for those who want to support the volunteers who create the walks, the online descriptions and instructions, a Facebook page, and general organization of the walks.  

“Our motto is ‘Fun, Fitness and Friendship,’” says Weber. He quotes a little ditty: “Walk with a group, walk with a guide, walk a different route, walk far and wide.” 

Age, nor infirmity, deter local bicyclists. 

Jeffrey Engel, 76, leads a small group of older bicyclists, both men and women for a 30- to 40-mile jaunt each weekend.  

“We’re chronologically enhanced cyclers,” he quips. Known as the Canti-elks, a droll acknowledgement that they can’t go the speed of a lumbering elk, the group is part of the Nitty Gritty Bike Band, longstanding cycling enthusiasts in the Athens area. Engel and his wife, Becky, have been actively road biking for about 15 years.  

“A lot of people don’t realize how beautiful the countryside around Athens is,” he says, noting that for years all he knew was the main highways before he took up the sport. Rides with the Canti-elks, as the oldest and the slowest group, are “no-drop” rides – “We will always wait for the slowest person.”  

Starting points for the rotating routes include Oconee Heights Baptist Church, Burney-Harris-Lyons School, Whit Davis Elementary and other sites in Winterville and Watkinsville. 

The back roads the group traverses pass by scenic farms, pastures, forests and include quaint small towns such as Maxey.  

“We go slow enough that people can socialize because you’re not getting totally out of breath,” Engel explains. “Riding with others provides not only company and scenery but safety in numbers.” Another plus for those starting out is other riders will know how to change a tire and carry the necessary equipment.  

Weekly emails include maps and cue sheets that show where turns are. For more information, email

Biking through cancer and Covid 

Since responding to a colleague’s challenge in 1998 to lose weight and bike with him to Savannah, retired educator Ken Sherman hasn’t let anything interfere with his four, 40-mile bike rides with the Nitty Gritty Bike Band each week.  

Soon to turn 72, Sherman says he had gained 40 pounds in middle age as he worked, raised a family, and pursued a doctorate.  

“It was a good time to make a change – it was easier on my body and I’ve kept my weight off these 25 years,” he says. And the social aspect has been just as important – “It’s a blessing and a gift to be able to do it. I’ve met a lot of great buddies.”  

About 10 years ago, Sherman was diagnosed with chronic leukemia, but he kept riding through his chemotherapy. And when Covid hit and other members of the Nitty Grittys dropped out, he kept it going, given the riders were outdoors and spaced apart.  

“All of us are fighting through some kind of infirmity,” he explains. “We have some cancer survivors, folks with hip or knee replacement, arthritis, but I’m convinced riding is a great tonic, both mentally and physically. You have the support of the people around you.” 

He especially recommends a book that inspired him: “Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, Sexy and Smart Until You’re 80 and Beyond,” by Chris Crowley.  

“It’s amazing how much you can reverse that slowing down and aging and forestall decline,” he emphasizes. “There are lots of ways to do it but it’s a matter of taking that first step…Keep moving; otherwise, it’s easy to get down on yourself.  

Sherman can be reached at

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