Fitness Helps Elder Chickasaw’s Mental Health, Keeps Body Fit | Local News



For World Mental Health Day on October 10, many are thinking about ways to improve their lives. It has long been known that the benefits of physical activity help not only the body, but also the mind. For 73-year-old David D. Atkins, Chickasaw, cycling has become a spiritual experience.

“It’s a time when you clear your head,” Atkins said. “It is a time of meditation and my time of prayer. It is the mind, body and spirit.

Atkins grew up in Stonewall, Oklahoma. As his life has taken him all over the world, he feels a special connection to the Chickasaw Nation and Oklahoma. Currently living in Albuquerque, he returns home as often as he can. He participated in the Oklahoma Freewheel, Oklahoma’s annual state-to-state bike tour, from 2014 to 2019. He was unable to ride in 2020 due to COVID-19.

“There is no better way to see the beauty and learn the history of a place than by bike,” said Atkins.

A lifelong sports enthusiast, Atkins has a natural penchant for physical activity. Long-distance running was originally his sport of choice. He walked in the shoes of his older brother, Eugene, who was an accomplished boxer, wrestler, and track star at Chilocco Indian School, the Indian residential school in north-central Oklahoma.

Growing up in a time when speaking the Chickasaw language was not socially acceptable, Atkins experienced his fair share of hurdles and heartache. He was a Navy veteran who loaded ammunition on planes during the Vietnam War. He later lost his wife, Gloria, in a car accident and his mother, Rosie, the same year. He had to find ways to continue.

Early in his post-military period, Atkins bounced back and found himself caught in a drug and alcohol fog. He clung, he said, to the spirituality and values ​​instilled in him as a youth by his parents, Jack and Rosie, and the Hickory Hill Baptist Church near Fittstown, Oklahoma.

Over time, Atkins noticed the vital role athleticism and spirituality played in bringing him back to balance when life put obstacles in his way. His personal anecdotal accounts are supported by science.

According to research published in The Lancet and an article published on, exercise improves mental health. People who exercised had two days of poor mental health in a month, compared to 3.4 days of poor mental health among those who did not participate in any physical activity.

Ryan McMahan, Certified Professional Advisor with the Chickasaw Nation and a member of the Chickasaw Cycling Club, said cycling has been shown to improve mood, decrease stress, sharpen thinking and improve sleep. Cycling also releases a protein in the brain that protects neurons and helps new ones develop.

“Cycling has been my primary way of taking care of myself and stressing out during the COVID-19 pandemic,” McMahan said. “I often tell clients that we all have a cup of stress. When the cup is full of water, it only takes one drop to overflow it over the rim, and we as people are very similar. For me, the bike was a way to empty my cup.

Atkins uses physical activity to help him achieve his goals. When he was younger, he set himself the goal of obtaining his higher education diplomas. He attended Oklahoma Baptist University, the University of Oklahoma, and Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He obtained a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in social work and a master’s degree in management science, respectively, from these institutions.

To reward himself for graduating from Lesley College, Atkins ran the Boston Marathon in 1994. It was his last marathon. Previously, he had completed the ascent of the Pikes Peak Half Marathon, as well as other marathons and half marathons in New Mexico, Phoenix, Colorado and Seattle.

His running time caused significant wear and tear on his knees. Unable to continue running, he began to look for other ways to work his body. He discovered cycling later in his life.

“Cycling is easier on your joints,” Atkins said. “It’s a bit like running. Your body adapts to whatever it needs to do. You learn how to get in shape, choose the right bike, shoes and other equipment. It makes driving more enjoyable when you put it all together. “

When Atkins retired from the Indian Health Service in 2013 after 35 years as a clinical social worker specializing in drug addiction, he found extra time to spare. He focused on cycling for his fitness and became a member of the New Mexico Touring Society.

He made two trips to Europe with the New Mexico Touring Society, from Vienna, Austria, Budapest, Hungry and Innsbruck to Salzburg, Austria.

Atkins is also a founding member of the Chickasaw Cycling Club. As a general citizen, he finds time to ride with the club at least once a year, particularly in the Pontotoc Pursuit in Ada, Oklahoma. This ride was canceled this year due to Covid-19.

“We want to involve more young and middle-aged people in the Chickasaw Cycling Club,” said Atkins. “We do this by taking group walks. We don’t just want competitive runners, but also people who do it for fun and fitness. I want to acknowledge the support that Governor Anoatubby’s office has given me and the Chickasaw Cycling Club on our cycling adventures.

He is a role model for Chickasaw youth, veterans and seniors to get out and participate in physical activity. Atkins believes that physical activity helps prevent chronic health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity, which can develop later in life.

“You’re not too old to start doing some type of physical activity,” Atkins said, citing his own cycling experience as a retiree.

Cycling is both a collective and an individual activity. While others may have struggled to shut down gyms and stay active during COVID-19, Atkins continued his cycling regimen nearly 150 miles per week. He is able to maintain a social distance on his bicycle and to continue his physical activity both alone and with friends.



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