In Their Iron Years
More and more people in their 60s, 70s and beyond are discovering that fitness isn't just for the young. And some, even after leading sedentary lives, are in their best shape ever.
By JANE E. ALLEN, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Somehow we've come to believe that if we're not natural athletes or haven't made exercise a habit before middle age, the door to getting fit has closed behind us. That perception is being shattered.
Not only is it never too late to begin exercising, but some latecomers to physical fitness achieve the shape of their lives in their 60s and 70s.
As their ranks increase, seniors are proving to themselves--and to those who have years to go before retirement--that it's possible to reinvent the body even after decades of indulgent meals and little exercise. And for them, as for their younger counterparts, the health and psychological benefits are enormous. Walk almost any morning into the Sports Club/LA in West Los Angeles, and you can't miss John A. McMannus, who at 76 routinely puts men half his age to shame. He bench-presses 300 pounds, pedals a stationary bike at one of the hardest settings, sets the treadmill at a brisk 5.5-mph pace (with a steep incline) and crunches his already toned abdominals.
"With me, it's all competition with myself," says McMannus, a retired commercial airline pilot who got the exercise bug at 50. Now at an age at which many seniors' shoulders already slump, he stands ramrod straight and has the light step of a younger man.
Such vigor and strength in the elderly didn't always seem possible, except for perennial exercise icons like Jack LaLanne.
Just 10 years ago, at 72, Jack Palance riveted an Academy Awards audience with a series of one-armed push-ups the night he won a best supporting actor Oscar. At the time, he was pointedly defying Hollywood's ageism--and the stereotype of a cane-assisted senior. But that stereotype is rapidly becoming obsolete. As Americans live longer, and more healthily, than ever before, seniors are realizing that fitness doesn't have to decline with age. Their doctors and exercise physiologists agree. Most relatively healthy men and women, they say, need not be limited by age.
"Most fit older adults have at least one to three chronic diseases. We still call them a normal, healthy adult even if they have cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoporosis," said Miriam Nelson, a nutritionist and director of Tufts University's Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition in Boston.
McMannus, for example, has overcome chronic back problems and underwent quadruple bypass surgery seven years ago, although he was back in the gym 17 days later. He even has macular degeneration and, by chronicling his symptoms while working out, is trying to help doctors understand the effects of intense exercise on that problem. Earlier this month he came home from a doctor's visit and recited his enviable numbers: blood pressure, 126/54; pulse, 47; and body fat, 10% to 12%.
"As a general view, there seems to be very little evidence that older exercisers, however you want to define that, have to do something different than younger exercisers," said Michael Hewitt, an exercise physiologist who oversees medical, behavioral, nutrition and exercise physiology activities at the Canyon Ranch health resort in Tucson. The resort emphasizes health, stress reduction and fitness, even for those with physical limitations.
As landmark studies with nursing home residents and other sedentary seniors have shown, you can build muscle late in life and maintain it. No matter how lofty an older exerciser's goals, he or she should begin with conditioning, general strengthening and flexibility and consult a physician before proceeding. But, Hewitt said, "the biggest mistake that most people tend to make is not to challenge themselves."
Just as it does for younger people, aerobic exercise strengthens the heart and cardiovascular system, reducing the risk of heart attacks. It improves sugar metabolism, reducing the risk of developing diabetes or helping to control glucose levels in diabetics. It improves balance, reducing the risk of falls. And weight-bearing exercise helps build bone mass to avoid osteoporosis and fractures of the hip and back. It can reverse bone loss in those whose bones already have become brittle.
Do nothing, though, and, beginning at age 35, "you lose a quarter to a third of a pound of muscle every year and gain that much body fat," Nelson said. Despite all the attention to cardiovascular fitness, strength training is critical to preserving muscle mass. "Research is showing us now that over two decades, from 50 to 70, those doing some strength training along with aerobic training don't lose muscle."
Of course, fit seniors' less-than-bulging biceps can be deceptive. They may not be as enlarged as those of a younger person, but those muscles are working much more efficiently. Nelson explained that more of the muscle fibers in a fit older person are firing away than in a younger person.
In the course of her research in several key senior exercise studies, Nelson observed that "once these people started getting stronger, they naturally took up a more active lifestyle."
Among them was Dorothy Barron, 73, of Taunton, Mass., who did no formal exercise while working and raising 11 children. But in 1993 she began making the twice-weekly 40-minute drive into Boston for a Tufts study of post-menopausal women. Researchers led by Nelson wanted to see if these women could gain muscle through strength training, all the while maintaining their weight.
"By the time I was in the program three months, I suddenly realized I had gone down three dress sizes, and I hadn't lost an ounce," said Barron, who dropped to a size 12. "I thought this was remarkable."
Once the study ended, she joined her local YMCA and added power walking to her weightlifting and exercise routine.
In 1999 she entered the Massachusetts Senior Games, the preliminaries to the Senior Olympics. "I was just going to give it a try. I never thought I'd win anything," said Barron.
She took home a silver medal. Two more silvers followed, in 2000 and 2001.
Emboldened by her successes, she decided to "try something a little different" and took up the shotput. More recently, she's gone white-water rafting on the Snake River in the Northwest and parasailing in Hawaii.
"I'm kind of proud of myself," said Barron, who anticipates qualifying for the Senior Olympics and mastering new sports or athletic events.
Signing up for the Tufts program nine years ago "helped me realize the potential that I could have, the things I could do that I never would have thought of."
Among the evidence that seniors like her are achieving higher levels of activity is the increasing rate of sports injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission found a 54% increase in such injuries among people 65 and older from 1990 to 1996. In that same 1998 report, the agency found a 29% increase in sports injuries among those 75 and older. The majority of the injuries occurred during activities such as biking, skiing, tennis and skating. The report also found a 173% increase in injuries related to exercising, including weight training, such as falls, tripping and strains.
But injuries are no more common among seniors than younger people, and they heal just as well, says Dr. Walter M. Bortz II, a geriatric specialist, author of "Dare to Be 100" and a marathon runner. In fact, Bortz, 72, and his wife, Ruth Anne, 71, recently became the first couple older than 70 to finish the Boston Marathon. She was the only woman over 70 to cross the finish line; he finished 26th among the 29 men over 70 who completed the race.
"I was beaten by an 87-year-old man," said Walter Bortz, laughing. Bortz began running at age 45 while grieving the loss of his father, a pioneering geriatrician. Since then, his experience running 33 marathons, not to mention the weight training he began five years ago, has made him a more resilient competitor: "It's getting easier. It used to be I thought I was going to die."
Bortz relies on what he calls "the wisdom of the body" to help avoid injuries. "The more you know, the more competent you are. Pain is nature's way of telling you to slow down, not to quit."
In recent years, folks in their 70s, 80s and even 90s have not only refused to quit, they've entered the record books with amazing feats of fitness. Hulda Crooks got the nickname "Grandma Whitney" for climbing 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney two dozen times between ages 66 and 91. Crooks, who died at 101 in 1997, also set a Senior Olympics world record in the 1,500-meter race at the age of 82.
In December, at age 77, a Floridian named David Clark became the oldest person to single-handedly sail around the world. And an 89-year-old Briton, Helen Tew, last July marked her second transatlantic crossing in a 29 1/2-foot yacht.
Although Hewitt and many exercise experts advise setting goals high, anyone new to physical activity should exercise common sense, warned Molly Mettler of Boise, Idaho, the new chairwoman of the National Council on Aging. "Start gently. Go for the distance. Don't try to achieve overnight results."
That's something that Joan Wright, 67, a retired insurance broker from Sherman Oaks, has kept in mind in the year since she decided that a decade of morning power walks wasn't enough for her.
She added strength training and aerobics classes near home. Then, when she signed up several months ago for a Friday afternoon acting class offered through the Oasis program for seniors at the Westside Pavilion mall in West Los Angeles, Wright decided to arrive early for two hours of exercise classes taught by the acting teacher. She got hooked.
"Now I can't quit," said Wright, who for years missed the feeling she got competing in childhood gymnastics. "I have the confidence that I could do more."