September 4, 2013

Exercise on the rise among older Americans

While only a small share of people are exercising enough, the percentage of those exercising after age 65 has been rising.

By Tara Bahrampour and Carol Morello / The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

"Every time we say there are limits to the human body, someone like Diana Nyad breaks it," said Frank Wyatt, who teaches exercise physiology at Midwestern State University in Texas. "In most studies on aging, the line goes in one direction, and it's generally down. Not a lot gets better. But if you look at Diana Nyad, you can say maybe our resolve does."

Doll said women often are better at endurance sports than men are, because their bodies have more fat that helps fuel their activity.

"You have to work harder, but you can maintain a lot of muscle mass," said Doll, citing a study in the 1990s in which nursing home residents who did quadriceps training almost tripled their strength.

Carol Mackela, 62, of Arlington, Va., was a competititve diver in college, but didn't dive for 33 years until 2006, when she heard an old teammate from college was still doing it. "Her dives looked better than in college," she said.

Looking around in the local area, she initially had a hard time finding a coach who would take her on. One coach "didn't have time for adults; he wanted to fill his slots with kids who are going to the Olympics."

But Mackela, a retired government attorney, eventually found a coach and will compete this Saturday in the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, along with other divers in their 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Some things have changed since college. "Most of us are a little heavier, so in somersaulting dives, if you haven't done it in 30 years, you have to find out where you are," Mackela said.

Older adults also need to stretch more –€” and conquer fears that a younger person might not have. "You understand more as an adult what can happen if you do something wrong," she said.

Bernhard Stamm, 74, of Ashburn, Va., learned that lesson three years ago, when he resumed doing field events after a hiatus of more than half a century and got so enthusiastic that he pulled his hamstring after failing to warm up properly.

"You've got to listen to your body," said Stamm, a retired architect who was a track and field athlete in high school in Switzerland.

With 25 gold medals in senior competitions under his belt, Stamm plans to compete in the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics next week in the standing long jump, running long jump, high jump, javelin, shotput, and softball throw. He'll even be adding some tricks he didn't know in high school.

"The Fosbury flop, where you jump over backwards," he said, referring to a move popularized in the 1968 Summer Olympics. "That didn't exist when I was a kid, so two years ago I learned it, and now I'm doing a Fosbury flop."

Nyad is a baby boomer –€” part of the generation born between 1946 and 1964 - and her feat may foreshadow a change in attitudes among a generation that has never liked to think of itself as old.

"She just didn't give up, she was determined to do it," Cooke said. "I'm thinking, 'All right, I can't let these little aches and pains hold me back; there's things to do and I'm going to get out there and do them."

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