DURHAM — Mary May Segal picked up a cough last week, so she didnt hit the pool for her usual water aerobics session Monday morning. Nor did she climb onto her beloved NuStep exercise machine. She did, though, manage a slow lap of the tiny indoor track at the Duke Health & Fitness Center, accepting congratulations as she inched along with her walker.
It was, after all, a victory lap. And not just because the ever-cheerful Segal reached 100 years old Monday with a sharp mind, relatively good health and enough fitness not only to move around but to exercise three days a week.
It was also a victory for dozens of her workout friends, who regard the tiny Segal as a giant yardstick.
If she can do it, why not them?
You give me inspiration to come here, you really do, said her friend Annie McClain, 78, who comes to work out on the same days as Segal Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Its impossible, of course, to know all the reasons Segal has stayed so healthy so long. But she has stuck to healthy habits all her life.
As a girl she was athletic, playing tennis and basketball at Durham High School, where she was the shortest player on the hoops team at 5 feet even (shes 4 feet, 8 inches now).
And all her adult life, she has favored motion over being sedentary. Instead of taking a bus, Id walk every where, she said.
She and a sister were the longtime owners of a custom drapery shop in Durham called Textile Sales.
About the time she retired, she was diagnosed with heart problems. It was then that she began her regular exercise regimen, first at the fitness centers predecessor, on an outdoor track and by repeatedly climbing the stairs at Dukes Wallace Wade Stadium.
That was 35 years ago.
Then in 1991, the Duke Health & Fitness Center opened. These days, she comes in about 9:15 a.m., does her pool routine, then four laps of the track and about 30 minutes on the NuStep, a machine that you sit in while working your legs as if you were climbing stairs, and your arms as if you were cross-country skiing.
She also chats nonstop with her admirers, essentially everyone in the place.
She calls it her social club, and she says its what keeps her going, said her daughter, Eileen Abramson. And if thats what keeps her going, Ill keep bringing her here.
Since Segals diagnosis in 1978, there has been a growing emphasis on preventing cardiovascular disease, not just treating it. But she had already been doing many of the things that doctors and researchers recommend to lengthen your life and keep its quality high.
She hasnt eaten red meat since she was about 10 years old, and eats chicken only once a month or so, typically when shes a guest somewhere and doesnt want to offend. That all started, she said, because she likes animals.
She wont eat fried food and uses no oil. And she has two small squares of dark chocolate a day, a foodstuff that in moderation has several positive health effects, research suggests.
Its about the only food she doesnt dose with Texas Pete.
I put it on everything, and I mean everything, she said.
The Texas Pete folks got wind of that infatuation and Segals birthday and a gift is on the way. Im pretty sure I know what it is, her daughter said.
Its not only what Segal eats, but how much, said Abramson, who herself turned 72 Monday and also seems much younger that her years suggest.
There is no supersizing.
She has always been very, very careful about portions, Abramson said. And so if the potato chip package says a serving is 10 chips, she will count out 10 chips.
Still, her health hasnt been perfect. A decade or so ago she developed diabetes. And she has high blood pressure. But she has been able to keep both in check with medicine and her lifestyle.
And six years ago, she fell and broke her hip, which for the elderly can be the end of mobility and the start of a slide into poor health.
A doctor said she would never walk again, Abramson said. But here she is; shes a good healer.
Another key to her longevity may be a low-stress demeanor.
She believes theres good in everybody, her daughter said. And shes always calm. Ill get wound up about certain things, and shell always say, Let it go, let it go.
She was even calm Monday, despite the hoopla, which included being serenaded with Happy Birthday by friends and staff as she arrived, presentation of a lifetime membership, and letters from the mayor, the governor, a U.S. senator and the president of the United States and famously fit first lady.
Three times, her friend Francis Stephans gathered crowds of exercisers to cut the cake, but Segal got distracted by well-wishers. Everyone wanted hugs and to chat, and the squad of young staff members asked for a group photo.
McClain cornered Segal for the freshly minted centenarians umpteenth hug of the day.
Im going to follow, McClain said. I have a good way to go, but I plan to reach there, and if I have a sharp mind like yours, it will be worth it.
Segal beamed and looked around a semi-circle of well-wishers.
Well, I thank all of you for paying so much attention to me, she said. This will be something to remember for a long time.