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The Polar Bears Of Martha's Vineyard Offer Insights On Aging Gracefully And Having Fun While Doing It (PHOTOS)

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Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette
Ray Ewing/Vineyard Gazette

Life is short and summers on Martha's Vineyard are even shorter. But a group of African-American men and women called the "Polar Bears" are finding ways to prolong both. In fact, they've been doing so for more than fifty years.

The Polar Bears' morning prayer and swimming sessions in the frigid waters of Inkwell Beach are a case study on how the Vineyard's historic African-American summer traditions are being carried on. And for Temple University sociologist Donna-Marie Peters, they offer insights on how women of color age and what we can learn from them on how to do it well.

"We were looking at literature on health and exercise and, very pejoratively, it's as if African-American women do not exercise. We’re the posterchild for poor health," Peters told The Huffington Post, explaining how her experiences vacationing on the Vineyard since childhood turned into a study published in the Journal of Women & Aging last month.

"We look pitiful in the media when it comes to good health, exercise and holistic approaches to living as we age," she said. "But then I come [to Martha's Vineyard] and I see this contradiction."

That contradiction is what led Peters into both an 11-year research project exploring the importance of cultural approaches to exercise in the promotion of health-enhancing behavior for African-American women, and into the waters of the Inkwell herself.

There, at 7:30 each morning, from July 4 through Labor Day, Peters and the ladies (a group which she says now welcomes men and participants of any race) channel their youth through song, prayer and cardio exercise.

"We are participating in a religious experience in a way," Peters said, comparing the scene to that of a baptism. "We sing spirituals, we say affirmations and prayers for people in the water, in the middle of doing different exercises," exercises that, according to Peters, include traditional water aerobics with a certain African-American flair.

"They add aspects of African-American culture to the exercise. They make [it] fun ... so people will come back," she said.

And while getting into the water wasn't easy at first, it offered Peters what was perhaps her most important insight of all -- that the group's commitment to healthy behavior extends well beyond their summers on MV.

"They're not at home being couch potatoes and then coming to Martha's Vineyard and all of a sudden starting to exercise," Peters says, cautioning against the generalizations made in medical literature about African Americans' failure to exercise.

"Yes, we are as a population overweight, but you have to have a nuanced understanding of black life in order to understand this [misconception]," she said. "We might not be skinny, but a lot of us are very health conscious, especially as we age."

Case in point: Local artist and naturalist Rose Treat who joined the Polar Bears club in the 1950s and lived to the age of 103.

Similar profiles tell equally inspiring stories of longevity by way of the Polar Bears club, while others explore the group's role in Martha's Vineyard's long-standing allure for African-American residents and visitors alike.

In a feature on African-American Vineyarders then and now, Vineyard Gazette contributor John H. Kennedy wrote:

Reliable data about the summer population is scarce, but a wide range of black residents say the Vineyard has retained its grip on the imaginations of vacationers, as more and more are finding their way here from places far beyond New England, New York and Washington D.C. The Island’s beauty, history, cultural and intellectual institutions — and not least — comfort factor all combine to create an atmosphere that keeps attracting short-term visitors, seasonal residents and year-rounders of all races, most especially blacks.

When compared with other summer resorts that have historically welcomed blacks — Idlewild in Michigan, Sag Harbor in New York, or Highland Beach in Maryland, for example — the Vineyard still stands apart, they say.

Polar Bears ambassador Ed Redd agreed. "There is no other resort like this in America,” he told the Gazette, fresh out of the Inkwell after his early-morning swim.

Tell Us: Where is your go-to summer retreat?

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