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About a Third of the Nation’s Seniors Exercise, and Experts Say They’re on the Right Track

Times Staff Writer

Age 60 was something of a bummer for Burt DeGroot Jr., of San Clemente.

Back in his pole vaulting days at Stanford, he had injured his right ankle. The years had gone by, and now the effects of that injury were bothering him to the point that he had to give up his longtime conditioning program of running and jumping and volleyball playing.

“I was dean of student activities at Santa Monica College, and I began using my lunch hour, instead of eating, to lift weights in the gym,” he recalled.

Tried Putting the Shot

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“That was turning out so well that when I reached age 64, my brother, who was track coach at Fullerton High School, suggested that I stop by and have a try at putting the shot and throwing the discus.”

DeGroot, now 82, is busy prepping to compete in the second biennial U.S. National Senior Olympics this June in St. Louis.

His specialty: Shot putting and discus throwing.

“I practice three times a week at San Clemente High School,” the octogenarian said proudly. “I can put the shot about 28 feet, and I can throw the discus about 90 feet.”

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Many seniors still hesitate to join the fitness craze in America, but what with the increasing graying of the nation, attention is turning more and more to the issue of what extent older people should participate in exercise.

Surveys, according to the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, show that only about one-third of American adults age 65 and older exercise regularly.

Benefits of Activity

This is unfortunate, health experts say. “The four most common chronic conditions among adults age 65 and older are arthritis, hypertension, hearing impairments and heart disease,” said a spokesman for the Council. “All but hearing impairment can be positively influenced by appropriate exercise.”

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But those seniors who have tried intensive exercise seem to have caught the bug. Two years at the first Senior Olympics, about 3,000 people showed up from 38 states to compete in swimming, archery, volleyball and other events. A spokesman for the Senior Olympics expects 4,000 to show up this year.

Who better to proclaim the exercise gospel than an elderly person himself, 78-year-old Dr. John H. Williams of Valdese, N.C., a former health educator who continues to practice what he preaches.

Five days a week he drives 50 miles round-trip just to swim at the YMCA in Conover--about 600 yards daily at present--in preparation for the swimming events at the coming Senior Olympics.

“Swimming is ideal exercise for seniors,” Williams said by phone. “There is no pressure on the bones, joints and tendons. An older person can harm those things, especially by pounding them on the pavement while running or jogging.

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“But the buoyancy of water means you can get an aerobic workout without putting any stress on the joints.”

Another oldster who believes in the value of swimming is 66-year-old Doris Peters of Imperial, Mo., also a participant in the inaugural Senior Olympics.

“There is something about the water that is very relaxing,” she said by phone. “If you run, you may finish exhausted. But if you swim, you finish refreshed. I feel like I’m a 66-year-old in the body of an 18-year-old.”

Williams, a retired public health professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, member of the President’s Conference on Physical Fitness and Aging, and author of numerous articles on the subject, also had these thoughts:

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“The body at any age is biologically meant to move; otherwise it will atrophy. I recall breaking my leg skiing in Germany in the 1940s. When the leg came out of the cast after eight weeks, it was thin as a pencil. Similarly, in the later years of one’s life, if the body isn’t used, it begins to say: ‘OK, I’ll just shrink.’ ”

The retired professor pointed out the advantages that today’s seniors have over those of decades past: “In former days, there weren’t nearly as many swimming pools, bowling alleys, bike paths, urban walking paths.”

Octa DeLamater doesn’t need those sort of facilities for her daily exercise. Just give her a Nerf ball to pitch or kick or toss into a basket.

DeLamater, by the way, is 105 years old.

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Not one to let wheelchair confinement interfere with working out, she shows up regularly three times a week in a room near hers at Hollenbeck Home, a life-care facility in Boyle Heights.

She has a hearing problem, but activity director Betts Hall described the remarkable centenarian:

“She is a physical marvel. Up until she was 101, she would lie on her back on the floor, and kick both her feet up over her shoulders and her head.

“Octa would also sit in a chair in her room with weights on her ankles, and lift her legs. Until a couple of years ago she would walk unassisted through the home every day--and keep records to see how many miles she was piling up.”

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Still Exercising

At 105, this native Kansan can only walk with assistance now, and navigates in a wheelchair. But this doesn’t hinder her in any way from showing up thrice weekly for a half-hour exercise class.

“About 15 residents participate, and they sit in wheelchairs in a circle,” the activity director said. “Part of the time is spent tossing a ball either to a neighbor, or to whoever is in the center conducting the class.

“Eventually a portable basketball hoop is brought out, and they take turns trying to score baskets. Also, they play a form of soccer. They sit and kick a ball to one another.

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“Sometimes the others protest because Octa will stretch a leg out and try to get in a kick before the ball reaches the person next to her. She is still a competitor.”

Not everyone, however, gets to the same destination via the same route.

Chauncey Depew, a U.S. senator from New York at the turn of the century who lived to be 94, once said: “I get my exercise acting as a pallbearer to my friends who exercise.”

Fred Kuraner, age 80, of Sherman Oaks, seems to have the same outlook. “I’ve never done any special exercising in my life,” he said. “It has gotten me this far, so I figure it’ll get me to the end, whenever that is.”

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Kuraner allowed as how he does sometimes bicycle to the bank or post office, but added that he does so because he doesn’t like to drive anymore.

“I’m basically a lazy person,” Kuraner said. “My wife wants me to walk more, and sometimes I do. But I never make it a habit to do so. I do nothing regimented.

“I eat whatever I like. I have never done a diet. I eat eggs every day--I think they are the most complete nourishment there is. I am healthy, and I don’t see doctors much at all.”

You might say that Kuraner marches to a different drummer--one with a slower beat.

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Dr. Bob Wiswell, an associate professor of exercise science at USC, touts the idea of seniors devoting part of their leisure time to exercise.

--For cardiovascular endurance.

--For maintenance of muscular strength.

--For mobility/flexibility.

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--To keep body fat down.

The important thing for the older folks is that they don’t have to reach exhaustion to benefit from exercise, Wiswell explained. “The younger get 70% to 85% of maximum heartbeat output, the older can get the same benefit from 35% to 45%.”

Wiswell mentioned Harry Truman’s favorite exercise, walking, as something most seniors can do. “Walking a mile will burn off 100 calories.

Other Options

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“Such people might also consider lawn mowing, riding either a stationary or moving bike, swimming, deck shuffleboard, lawn bowling, badminton, folk dancing--something other than just sitting,” he said.

Those looking for statistical evidence should consider the remarks of Dr. Everett L. Smith, director of the biogerontology lab at the University of Wisconsin:

“Currently, the average individual loses functional capacity at the rate of 0.75% to 1% a year after the age of 30. . . . In my opinion, about 50% of the average aging decline is self-induced by life style, and the other 50% is due to the genes or the makeup of the individual biological system.”

Although not all experts agree that an exercise program should include running, a recent study by the Stanford University School of Medicine seems to dispel the notion that the older shouldn’t run, because of damage they might cause to their knees or hips.

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Stanford studied 41 long-distance runners between the ages of 50 and 72, and a comparable group of non-runners. The runners, both male and female, had 40% more bone material than the non-runners, but showed no significant differences in the onset of joint disease or osteoarthritis.

Walking, according to gerontologists, is by far the most popular exercise activity for people 65 and older.

Santa Monica Place, as have some other Southland shopping malls, has begun a program to encourage it. Theirs is called Sea Strutters.

“The program is offered from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” explained Liz Von der Heide of the marketing department. “Walking the full length of each of our three levels equals one mile.”

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Jean and Donald Cotner of San Juan Capistrano do their daily walking at Dana Point Harbor. By now they are used to the wisecracks: “Is somebody chasing you?”

The 65-year-old wife and the 66-year-old husband are both rapid walking buffs. So good have they become in their few months at it that they have won prizes in three competitions, and will strive in the coming national Senior Olympics--in the 5-K race walking event.

“It sort of started by accident,” Donald Cotner said. “I had taken up running at age 63, and was competing in events for seniors. Two years ago we went to Melbourne (Australia) where I was entered for an event.

“I came down with the flu. Had gone all that way, and didn’t even get to participate in the parade. I was so disappointed I decided the heck with run competition.”

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Going Faster

When the Cotners returned home, they did a little recreational walking at Dana Point, and in due time they noticed something: They seemed to be walking faster than most of the other pedestrians.

Which led to race walking. “It’s great for the cardiovascular system,” Jean Cotner said. “Gets your pulse up, and keeps your body moving.

“I still like swimming and bicycling, but walking can be done anywhere.”

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Additionally, as she has for 21 years, Jean Cotner teaches yoga classes. “Some of my students are seniors. It’s a safe way to keep the body flexible and in tune.”

As for the couple’s fast walking, they do about four miles together daily, four days a week.

The senior circuit.


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