Helen and George Stroup can tell you about the benefits of staying active in your senior years.
"You feel better after you've exercised. People don't believe you, but you do," Helen Stroup said.
The Stroups, both 73, joined the Bel Air Athletic Club just afterit opened in 1980. Neither had been very active before, but these days they rarely miss a workout.
"I had high cholesterol," said Helen Stroup, who moved to Bel Air from just outside Altoona, Pa., after she and her husband retired in 1979. "One of my doctors said if therewas an athletic club down here we should join. We did, and we haven't been sorry."
The Stroups settled in Bel Air to be near their daughter, Judy Johns, and her family. Sometimes, three generations of the family can be found working out at the club -- the Stroups, their daughter and grandson Jonathan Johns, 20.
The Stroups may not be the average 73-year-old couple -- but they aren't so unusual either.
The number of senior citizens working out regularly at the Bel Air Athletic Club, the county's largest private health club, is increasingall the time, said Roger Ralph, who owns the club along with his wife, Elaine.
Ralph said that the number of seniors in aerobics classes and water sports has doubled over the past five years and that thenumber is also picking up in other sports.
Today's active seniorsmay be thought of as pioneers one day. Not only are they plowing a fairly new course for themselves and the rest of their generation, buttheir efforts should make the golden years a better time for the rest of the rapidly aging population.
Every year, more and more Americans reach the age of 55, "officially" becoming senior citizens.
In Harford County, those age 55 and older make up 16 percent of the population, based on statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of State Planning.
The latest census figures put the number of Maryland citizens over age 55 at just over 19 percent of the population.
Since the first wave of baby
boomers won't even hit 50for about five more years, the senior population will certainly explode with the turn of the century. By 2025, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population will be over age 50.
As more Americans become senior citizens, more senior citizens are determined not to take it too easy in their golden years, aging experts say.
Forget the image of grandma and grandpa rocking their old age away on the front porch. More and more seniors are trading sedentary lifestyles for regular exercise.
More seniors understand that regular exercise and proper diet can add up to a happier, healthierold age. In addition, seniors have more opportunities to participatethan ever before.
In Harford County, seniors can work out at a variety of private athletic clubs, such as the Bel Air Athletic Club, or they can take classes specifically aimed at the senior population at Harford Community College.
Once seniors begin working out and get into better shape, many seek more rigorous exercise or greater variety in their athletic programs, Ralph noted.
"We've always had a core cadre of seniors in swimming and water sports," said Ralph, 49. "A lot more people are doing cross training
now because it's less boring. I think you're going to see a lot more seniors interested in strength training, both stations and free weights."
The trend is obvious at Harford Community College, said Don Dean, director of health, physical education, recreation and athletics.
The college offersa handful of non-credit exercise courses targeted at senior citizens, but some also sign up for a variety of credit courses, the most popular being aerobic swimming, he said. A few also take a fitness maintenance class using the equipment in the college's fitness lab even though that course is not targeted for senior citizens.
The most popular seniors-oriented program is a fitness course, which meets several times a week and stresses flexibility routines, strengthening exercises and cardiovascular fitness.
The 2-year-old course has about 60 members in the current class. Other popular non-credit courses include swimming fitness for senior adults and ballet for senior adults.
"A lot of these (courses) have been developed in the last five years," Dean said. "And they are constantly being developed to meet the needs of this part of the population. (The senior fitness course) is designed so they incorporate a variety of activities. You're not justgoing into the pool and swimming. As much as it can be, it's individualized. We don't expect everyone to do everything or at the same level."
The biggest showcase of active senior citizens is the U.S. National Senior Sports Classic, formerly called the National Senior Olym
pics. The third biennial event drew about 5,200 participants between the ages of 55 and 99 to Syracuse, N.Y., last week. Seven Harford County residents were among the approximately 200 Maryland athleteswho competed in one or more of the event's 18 sports.
The competition drew them to Syracuse, but most participants began training for the same reasons other seniors are drawn to fitness courses. Whether they exercise to train for competition or simply to stay in shape, senior citizens are donning their running shoes and swimming togs for physical and social benefits.
"We thought we should do something inorder to make friends that would also help us have a healthier body," said Helen Stroup, an avid golfer at the Maryland Golf and Country Club, just outside of Bel Air.
Thomas Coyle, 65, of Aberdeen got involved with the Maryland Senior Olympics nine years ago. Since then,he has competed every year at the state level and twice at the national games.
"You meet a lot of real great people," said Coyle, who started out running at age 47, but now rides his bicycle in competition. "The first year (at nationals), they were all strangers, so to speak, but after that they came back and you meet with them and talk.
"They're people who don't care about your income or your relatives or whether your house is stone or brick. You talk to them mostly about cycling; that's something you have in common."
While some seniors have been active for years, others, like the Stroups, have caught the fitness bug for the first time later in life.
Some just want toget in shape. Others become competitive. At least half of the athletes at the U.S. National Senior Sports Classic last week in Syracuse didn't take up sports until they were already into their 50s, organizers say. Some don't get involved until even later.
At the classic, the greatest participation is in the 60- to 69-year-old age range. Medals are awarded in age groups from 55-59 to 85 plus.
"The earliergroup (55-59) is still involved in the work-a-day
world," said Robert G. Zeigler, chairman of the Maryland Senior Olympics Commission and a professor of physical education at Towson State University.
"In their 60s, more people retire. If they have any inclination toward activities like this, that's when they get in. It's a natural time for them."
Last year's state and local senior games drew close to 100,000 participants nationwide, officials of the national games say.More than 70 cities held their own brand of olympics for people 55 year old and older. The medalists in state events qualified to move onto the national competition.
The Maryland Senior Olympics takes place each October at Towson State University. In its first year, the event drew 300 competitors. Last year, the 11th annual event drew more than 1,400.
Harford County has been represented in all 11 events. Only two county residents took part in the first state Senior Olympics in 1980. That number grew to 29 by 1985 and to 49 last year.
The Harford County government offers some limited physical activity programs, including line dancing and mild aerobics in some of its five senior centers.
"Our elderly population has grown 5 percent a yearfor the last 10 years," said James Macgill, director of Harford County's Office on Aging. "We're getting more people all the time (to thesenior centers) as they find we're here."
Still, Macgill said county seniors interested in fitness are more likely to take courses at the community college. For now, he said, the courses offered meet theneeds of local seniors.
At Harford Community College, Dean said, "We're at a point where we feel good about what we offer them, and, Ithink, the senior citizens feel good about the opportunities they have. As with any program at the college, we look to refine or expand them depending on the needs of the community."
With the coming explosion in the senior population, more people will be looking for opportunities to improve not only the length of their lives in their senior years, but also their quality of life, McGill and other aging experts say.
Helen Stroup doesn't even want to think what her life would be like if she and her husband had never joined the Bel Air Athletic Club and gotten on a regular exercise program.
"It's really beenfun, and it's a godsend for us," she said. "We've met other people, and we aren't lonely. We don't sit around and watch TV. We don't havetime."
SENIOR POPULATION BREAKDOWN
Age group... ... .1980... ... ... ...1991... ... ...1995*
55-59... ... ... 6,710... ... ... ..7,746... ... .. 8,275
60-64... ... ... 4,839... ... ... . 6,927... ... .. 6,900
65-74... ... ... 5,924... ... ... .10,082... ... . 10,931
75-84... ... ... 2,674... ... ... . 4,537... ... .. 4,957
85+... ... ... ... 773... ... ... . 1,344... ... .. 1,525
Figures from Department of State Planning, revised Sept. 1987.
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ... 1991 figures revised June 1990
SENIOR POPULATION GROWTH
Senior population growth
Year... ... ... Total... ... ... ... Over 60
1980... ... ... 145,930... ... ... .. 14,210
1990... ... ... 173,000... ... ... .. 22,196
1995**... ... . 175,200... ... ... .. 24,313
2000*... ... .. 195,000... ... ... .. 29,386
**Projected, but already surpassed by recent
U.S. Census Bureau figures showing county
population at 182,000.
Figures from Department of State Planning, revised Sept. 1987
... ... ... ... ... ... ... ...1991 figures revised June 1990