I was thrilled watching them. There is no way I could ever have been in their ranks. I've never been an athlete. I was always the last picked on our parochial school volleyball teams and had such a distinctive lack of ability, such an aversion to the ball, that schoolmates would wince and moan if I ended up on their teams. In high school, I was infamous for my gym excuses. I think I claimed to have my period for at least three-and-a-half years straight in order to avoid the dreaded gym classes.
Yet I loved to dance, studied for years, danced a bit professionally in musical theatre and recreationally for years after that. Though my enthusiasm far outweighed any natural talent, I remember joy of movement, of testing the limits, and of delicious exhaustion. I remember, quite a few years back, that I once had a slim body. Part of that, of course, was youth. But the rest was my regimen of dance classes and running five miles a day with my husband.
One of the few regrets I have in my life is allowing my exercise regimen to skid to a halt sometime around the age of forty. The rest is a sad history of yo-yo dieting and struggles with obesity. But, in the past two years, I have been in the process of reclaiming the joy of movement with daily gym work works, swimming and walking. I'm still overweight and look at least my age if not a bit older. But I feel immeasurably better.
An active adult/retirement community is an interesting place to watch the aging process in action -- and the stark differences between those who are truly active and those who aren't.
There are those who have never exercised and who are suffering the consequences in bad health, crippling arthritis and growing weakness. But there are others who may have been active all their lives or who have come to it lately who are marvelous examples of the benefits of fitness.
There is Tom, lean, muscular, a serious hiker and an awesome gym fixture. He coaches other people in weight training. He is strong and fit, combining weight work with stretching and aerobics on the elliptical machine daily. Then, of course, he trains for long, strenuous mountain hikes by making five trips up and down a steep and treacherous local butte several times a week. Tom looks like an exceedingly fit 50 year old -- but is an astonishing 81 years old.
There is Theo, who never misses a spinning class, bikes several miles a day, works out at the gym, swims and is an amazing tap dancer. With his tall, lean body, he could pass for a man in his forties. No one would ever guess that Theo is 73.
My husband Bob is another inspiration. He was my running partner when we were in our thirties, but he never stopped exercising. He runs 3-5 miles a day out in the desert and then hits the gym with fast jump roping, weights and more running on the treadmill. He is very slim, muscular and in amazing shape for any age, let alone 68, and has the vigor of a man many years younger.
I see many fit women as well, but one of the most impressive is someone who discovered the joy of exercise relatively late in life.
Irene is 50 and when I met her three years ago -- in July 2009 when we were visitors to this community -- she was markedly obese. We met in the pool where she was talking with friends about her new resolution to get slim and fit. Jaded by my own struggles, I thought "Yeah, right!" as she talked about her plans. But she actually did it. Coached by Tom, she changed her diet and worked out daily at the gym. About six months ago, she finally got down to 128, looking wonderful and challenging Bob to a push-ups competition.
Even those who aren't gym regulars can enjoy the benefits of exercise.
I remember, some years ago, asking my Aunt Evelyn, who was then 76, if she had any arthritis pain. She smiled. "I've discovered something interesting," she said. "As long as I walk my three miles a day, I'm fine. But if I skip a day or two, I hurt so much, I can hardly get out of my chair. So keeping active keeps me ahead of my arthritic pain. If I were to give in to it, I really would be a granny stuck in her rocking chair!"
Keeping active, then, can help many of us to maintain our health and vigor well into old age. It can, in so many ways, be lifesaving.
My friend Tim, who hasn't exercised regularly, is planning a new regimen. Part of his motivation is the realization that he is one year past the age when his father and grandfather died of heart attacks and part of it has been the shock of seeing the huge list of deceased college classmates on our 45th reunion website. Still working a demanding and stressful job, Tim recently moved from the suburbs to a downtown Chicago condo. He is walking to work, starting to use the gym in his condo building and is taking up bicycling. As we make plans to attend our 45th class reunion in October, Tim and I have made a vow not to land on that dreaded class In Memoriam page anytime soon.
There are no guarantees, of course. No amount of gym time will make us look like those young, elite athletes. And no amount of exercise will keep us off the In Memoriam list forever. But enlisting our own inner Olympians to integrate exercise and activity into the routines of our lives can help to increase the quality of our days, adding immeasurably to the joy and vigor of the rest of our lives.