Combating age, octogenarian carries years as lightly as he carries weights


HOWARD LYNCH amazes himself. In his basement workout area in Bel Air, he loosens up by turning a punching bag into a blur. Then he sits down and reaches for weight and more weight. He bench-curls 435 pounds. He bench-lifts 350 pounds. Once, he says, he bench-curled 420 pounds 10 times. Another time, he bench-curled 330 pounds 80 times. He is 82 years old.

That is not a misprint.

But Lynch's story goes beyond the arithmetic of lifting heavy pieces of iron. It's about capitulating to human frailties, or not. Lynch has rheumatoid arthritis. For a while, he couldn't open a door or hold his car keys. He's suffered a couple of heart attacks and takes heart pills every day. He's had one of his knees replaced. Once, he fell 18 feet from a ladder, bounced off a desk, suffered spinal damage and drove his forearm through his elbow socket.

"You're never going to have more than 20 percent use of that arm again," a doctor told him.

Twelve years ago, a doctor advised him he could exercise his way past some of his troubles, including the crippling arthritis, explaining that serious workouts would release painkilling neurotransmitters in the body, called endorphins. The heavier the workout, the more endorphins, the less pain.

He'd lifted weights in his youth but left them behind in busy pursuit of a career: 20 years as a construction supply salesman, then owner of a hardware store.

Starting with a bench and pulley weights, Lynch was quickly lifting 50 pounds. Twelve years later, at an age when many folks are delighted to be idling in the food court at their local mall, he keeps reaching for heavier weights, and longer repetitions, and thrilling himself every time he breaks new ground.

"Amazing, isn't it?" he says. "I guess I'm hardheaded and a little goofy, but it seems I conquer my goals with my positive attitude."

He not only amazes himself, but is thrilled to tell the immediate world about it. The strongest octogenarian in the world, he calls himself. A man who could have caved in to the creakiness of age and chose not to.

He's become a missionary of physical fitness, happily carrying around clippings from Harford County publications that have featured his exploits over the years, eager to show them off, and rattling off various feats of strength that clearly delight him.

"I was watching that Strongest Man in the World show on television," he was saying last week, "and they were struggling to get 360 pounds to their chest. And these are big guys. Here I am, 5 feet 8, 178 pounds, and I've been doing it for years.

"I'm getting stronger all the time. I don't know what it is, except I pray like the dickens. I look at all those weights and I think, how am I gonna lift those? And I think the answer is, God's pulling my arms up and down. He's pulling my arms like rubber bands. That's why I pray to him before and after every workout. If I stop, I'm afraid I'm gonna lay down and die."

That's a rare gloomy note out of Lynch. The man's rat-a-tat upbeat, a drum-roller for the full, strenuous life. Married for 57 years, he has a son and daughter and four grandchildren.

"All my life," he says, "I've been competitive. I played a lot of ball, and I couldn't stand losing. I played semipro baseball and made six all-star teams. It's enthusiasm that drives you to win and also to stay alive. You gotta have that enthusiasm."

He has an old newspaper clipping attesting to his baseball abilities -- an account of an exhibition game more than 60 years ago when Lynch played with a group of local semipro all-stars at the old Bugle Field. The opposing team was made up of retired major leaguers. The opposing pitcher? The immortal Cy Young, greatest winner of all time.

"Nobody could hit him," Lynch says. "And he was 58 or 60 years old at the time."

But it's his current athletic feats that thrill Lynch. He works out every three or four days and takes it easy in between. A few weeks ago, X-rays showed troubles in his neck and back. He says his doctor was amazed he wasn't suffering headaches.

"Strenuous living," he says. It's his mantra: Refuse to give in. If old age isn't for sissies, then everyone eventually has to make a choice: capitulate to the inevitable infirmities, or fight back.

"Most of the male members of my family died in their 60s," Lynch says. "I'm gonna live to be 110 years old."

We can only imagine how much weight he'll be lifting by then -- or how much enthusiasm he'll be shouting to the world.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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