This Grandmother and “Trash Activist” Stays Fit by Collecting Litter from Vancouver to Nepal

And she can still do a cartwheel, too.

“We are all guests on this planet.” That’s the mantra that drives Joyce Mah, and it informs her unusual dedication to picking up garbage wherever she goes. It all began more than 30 years ago, when she and her husband were commuting from their home in Deep Cove, B.C., to downtown Vancouver and saw a plastic water bottle rolling along the side of the highway. “My husband said to me, ‘You know, that bottle will be there for hundreds of years, and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ And that just stayed with me.” Mah decided that she would do something about it, in her own small way, and picking up litter in public spaces became reflexive. Today, it’s very much part of her daily movement regime.

There’s lots to admire about the 67- year-old Mah, including her commitment to making the outdoors a cleaner place for her grandchildren. She’s also indefatigably curious about all the ways she can move her body and willing to, as she says, “try everything.”

For much of her adult life, Mah enjoyed long-distance running. She and her husband started with shuffles around Stanley Park in Vancouver, and slowly graduated to 10K races, then half-marathons. Her husband’s work took them to Dallas, and they became deeply involved with the running community, travelling for marathons all over North America. She practised yoga to stay limber and flexible. And she quietly picked up trash during her training runs.

In 2014, Mah’s husband died of cancer. She returned to Vancouver to spend time with her sisters and grieve. She had developed arthritis in her knees while caring for husband, and at the time of his death, she couldn’t walk up or down stairs without severe pain. Running was out of the question. But Mah missed being active, so she focused on what she could do: short walks that became short hikes, and lots of work with a personal trainer.

As her body got stronger, she felt a new sense of urgency to tick off some “bucket list” trips. She worked with the goal of tackling some of the world’s most famous mountain treks: In 2019, she trekked near Machu Picchu; in 2022, it was Everest Base Camp. Over the past five years she’s been on yoga, pilates and meditation retreats in India, Nepal and Bhutan. (“I stopped overthinking whether I should go or not, and just started saying yes.”) She leads clean-up expeditions along the way, grabbing trash as she goes, enlisting the help of hotel porters and trail guides, even once flying a bag of litter from Everest to Kathmandu for proper disposal. Mah is now an ambassador for an NGO called Let’s Clean Up Nepal, but she never shirks the work in her own backyard.

Joyce Mah Best Health 2Image: Alana Paterson

Getting grounded:  Mah starts each day by meditating and doing a gratefulness practice. Last year, she did a 10-day Vipassana retreat in Pokhara, Nepal, and found the practice, which emphasizes observing your thoughts without judgement, to be very different from other forms of meditation she’d tried. “It’s an incredible way to heal yourself.”

Joyce Mah Best Health 3Image: Alana Paterson

Morning movement:  Mah streams classes from Movement by NM, a Vancouver-based online fitness platform established by mother-daughter duo Gabriela Schonbach and Amanda June Giannakos. Mah often returns to the gentle movement or high-energy boxing classes, depending on what her body needs.

Joyce Mah Best Health 4Image: Alana Paterson

Run the course:  These days, Mah is able to go for a light morning jog, but it was a long process to get here. She worked for years with a physio to strengthen the muscles around her arthritic knee joints, and she wears a special knee brace designed to help rehabilitate professional skiers and snowboarders.

Joyce Mah Best Health 5Image: Alana Paterson

Collection time: After her run, Mah heads down to the beach to collect garbage and clean catch basins. Her kit includes thick rubber gloves, barbecue tongs, sturdy trash bags and a catch-basin tool. She’ll sometimes bring a needle disposable box, too. “I’m doing this for the next generation,” she says. Plus, “I probably do 200 squats a day.”

Joyce Mah Best Health 6Image: Alana Paterson

Flip the script:  Yup, she can still do a cartwheel. Mah challenges herself to try difficult movements, whether it’s push-ups, lifting weights or high kicks. The most important criteria, she says, is that it’s something she enjoys. Listen to your body and focus on improving slowly and incrementally. Bonus: Her grandkids are suitably impressed.

Joyce Mah Best Health 7Image: Alana Paterson

Winding down:  Slow, easy stretches are an integral part of Mah’s daily routine. When Mah was a competitive long-distance runner, she practised yoga for recovery. Recently, she’s discovered Kundalini yoga, which incorporates chanting and breathwork into repetitive movements. “After practice, I feel a weight has lifted.”

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Originally Published in Best Health Canada