Getting older, getting fit

For people who want to live past 100, the first step is taking a whole bunch more steps.

A recent survey found half of all centenarians are exercising almost every day. Most are walking, but many also are lifting weights, practicing yoga, biking or playing group sports.

There are an estimated 72,000 centenarians across the country, and the number is expected to grow to 600,000 by 2050, according to UnitedHealthcare, which conducted the poll. To get into this group, others who work with seniors and some who are in their advanced years say, senior citizens should tie on some sneakers and get moving.

"Exercise is for everybody," said Dr. William Howard, a founder of Union Memorial Sports Medicine and a senior physician with the Arnold Palmer SportsHealth Center in Baltimore. "No matter how old or infirm or overweight, there is an exercise for you. There are many things to do besides tennis or running a marathon."

Howard said all people should get into the habit of exercising at a young age and keep it up. Stopping makes it harder to start up again, he said. He called it a "forever program."

The benefits are countless, from improved heart and general muscle heath to mental wellness. Exercise also improves sleep, confidence and balance. And it makes people more social, Howard said.

Howard, 78, used to play rugby but now jogs, rides a bike and does some work in the gym — all things he likes, which he said is key to keeping up the workouts.

He said many people quit after developing a little soreness, but they should expect that from a new activity. If the pain gets worse, he said, see a sports medicine doctor who can assess the workout and recommend modifications to the program and more appropriate equipment, such as better-fitting shoes.

But nobody has to stop exercising, he said. He hopes it even becomes addictive.

"You say you want to be a runner, and then you think after a while you'd like to race," he said. "Maybe then you decide you'd be better and faster if you stopped smoking. Then you say, 'I bet I'd do even better if I dropped 20 pounds.' And you can drop the weight if you eat better. Before you know it, you have a healthy lifestyle."

Whatever seniors do, he said, they should not sit back and think they've done enough exercising for their lifetime.

Many people approaching their senior years are active, according to a recent survey by AARP. The advocacy group found that seven in 10 adults ages 45 and older say they are physically active. About half of them say they exercise up to four hours a week.

However, almost two-thirds say they are less active than they were five years ago.

O. Lee McCabe isn't one of them. And his workouts aren't for wimps.

At 72, he's bench-pressing 120 pounds to warm up for his training three or four times a week. He's a competitive pentathlon athlete — which includes throwing heavy objects, such as a shot, javelin and, his favorite, the discus. In the last three years, he's competed in 60 to 70 track meets.

He's earned dozens of medals, many of them gold. They had been tucked away until recently, when his son, who has become an accomplished athlete himself through encouragement from his father, recently decided to display them in the family's basement gym in Ellicott City.

McCabe has been competing in one sport or another since he was 15, and his slim build, muscled arms and strong stride make him look years younger. He attributes that to his regimen, even if he's had a few aches and pains. He recently had his shoulder replaced, long after it was injured when he was regularly practicing karate in the 1970s. (He's a black belt.)

Knee replacements are next for McCabe, who works as a researcher in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and School of Medicine.

"I'll keep competing until I wear out all of my joints, and then I'll ask for new joints and compete more," he said. "The benefits definitely outweigh the costs."

He recommends that others getting started begin slowly, keep with it and use proper technique in whatever the activity might be. Hopefully, it's as much fun as throwing heavy things.

Something like Zumba? About 40 seniors at the Jewish Community Center in Park Heights have found their passion with the Latin aerobic workout.

Most found the class by word of mouth, and many had not been doing any exercising before — or not enjoying what they were doing.

Those in the class are generally between the ages of 65 and 80. One woman is in her 90s, and on a recent day, everyone completed the whole hour of dance moves.

"I wouldn't miss this class unless I had a broken leg," said Elaine Ozol, 77, of Mount Washington, wiping sweat from her brow after a recent session.

Added Allie Lieberman, 76, of Pikesville: "It takes care of what's wrong with you and what's was going to be wrong with you."

For 69-year-old Beatrice Gotthelf, who has Parkinson's disease, the exercise "keeps me loose."

The women were joined by Beulah Wallace, 80, and Deb Jones, 79, who said the class has gotten them into shape and kept them that way. It has also allowed them to forge bonds with each other.

And that's exactly what Jackie Foreman was going for. She's the fitness center and personal training supervisor at the Park Heights JCC.

Zumba can be ratcheted up or down, depending on each participant's abilities, she said. And it's appealing to people who normally get to dance only at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

"It's a gateway exercise," she said. "Some seniors have been exercising their whole lives, but we brought some nonexercisers into an exercise space. … It's meeting their physical and mental needs because they're remembering steps. And it's a community activity. They're enjoying being together."

Studies show that women and others who exercise will live longer and feel better for their efforts, said Dr. William B. Greenough III, a professor in the Hopkins Bayview Medical Center's' department of geriatric medicine and gerontology.

At 80, he has 15 marathons under his belt, and he and his wife still regularly compete in races.

He said research shows a half-hour of exercise three or four times a week brings optimal benefits, and those who exercise generally need far fewer medications.

He agreed there may be a little bit of pain or soreness, but once seniors push past the first 10 or 15 minutes, it should become more comfortable. Pain that doesn't subside may mean a doctor's attention and another exercise are in order. Swimming, stationary biking, gym workouts and yoga may be good alternatives for those with arthritis, balance problems or cardiac conditions.

Greenough recommended consulting a physical therapist or personal trainer if the doctor doesn't have good advice — or doesn't even bring up the issue of exercise. Many hospitals have physical therapy facilities.

"Even housework helps," he said. "You can adjust to a new level of activity in six to eight weeks, and it may take a year to get a whole lot of benefit. You can't quit. If you want to live longer, there isn't any pill that does it."

Who is exercising

About half of 100 centenarians polled say they exercise almost every day.

•Nearly 45 percent of the centenarians cite walking as their favorite physical activity; 11 percent practice yoga, tai chi or other mind/body/spirit activity; 8 percent ride a bike regularly; 5 percent jog; and 2 percent engage in sports like baseball, basketball, soccer or tennis.

More than seven in 10 adults age 45 and older say they are physically active.

Fewer than one in 10 adults age 45 and older say they plan to start regular exercise in the next month.

About one in 5 adults age 45 and older say they do not engage in regular physical activity and do not have plans to start.

Sources: AARP, UnitedHealthcare

Getting started

•Start slowly. You may be a bit sore at first as your body adjusts, and that's normal.

•Weight training is fine, though weight machines provide more stability than free weights and help users maintain proper technique. Same goes for stationary bikes. And swimming is also a good, safe alternative.

•Work out five or six days every week to maintain conditioning, but allow for relaxation and recovery.

•Keep a log so you can chart progress and see if you're missing too many workouts.

•Find an exercise that is fun, or is scheduled, like a class, so you keep it up.

•You don't necessarily need to see a doctor before getting going with walking, for example, unless you have pre-existing conditions that concern you.

•If you do have pain, see a doctor, preferably a sports medicine doctor. That doctor can best assess pain or recommend a better exercise program or shoe. (Most of the time, knee pain, for example, means you have a problem with your feet, like you need better shoes or inserts.)

•A little Advil or Tylenol, or even glucosamine, can take the edge off beginners' aches.

•Make sure to stay hydrated.

Source: Dr. William Howard

Fitness and arthritis

Arthritis is a common malady that keeps seniors from exercising. But Dr. William Howard, a founder of Union Memorial Sports Medicine and a senior physician with the Arnold Palmer SportsHealth Center in Baltimore, says exercise does not cause arthritis, and can even help prevent it by toning muscles, especially in the legs that support the knees, a prime target for the joint disease.

Exercise can, however, irritate the painful condition. Howard suggests swimming, a no-gravity exercise. It lengthens and stretches muscles and loosens joints a bit. He also suggests riding a stationary bicycle on a low tension so it doesn't strain the knees or hips. And weight training is OK but with light weights and high repetition to tone not bulk muscles.

"If anything hurts when you do it, it's probably wrong, but there is plenty you can do with very little, if any, pain," he said.

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