Turning Back the Clock : Owners of Northridge Gym Say Exercise, Weight-Lifting Hold Father Time at Bay

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To baby boomers, an old person used to be anybody over 30. Now, as boomers begin hitting their mid-40s and are closer to 60 than 30, they are redefining an old person as anybody over 75. Or 80. Boomers bravely have taken the attitude that aging doesn't have to be a, gulp, death sentence, and they hope the golden years will be as cool as the happy days were. But just in case, they're keeping a close eye on advances in cryogenics.

Boomers need reassurances. Liposuction, Retin-A body wraps and plastic implants notwithstanding, what's to really keep a human from falling apart? In the back of their minds, a little voice keeps whispering a new mantra: ravages of time, ravages of time . . .

Relax. Frank Cuva, 59, has good news: He has been able to hold his own against the dark forces of old age. With thick white hair, a mouthful of his own teeth and a healthy tan, Cuva radiates youth, but it is his body that really belies his age. Sinewy and defined, it would make a teen-ager envious; to a boomer, it's an inspiration.

Cuva, in fact, is selling inspiration. He and his 44-year-old wife Karen, both former competitive body builders, run a Northridge gym geared to middle-aged people. The Cuvas hold themselves up as examples, proof that it is possible to outrun Father Time and not "surrender to age," Karen says. But exercise is the key, she adds: "The Fountain of Youth is staying in shape."

The Cuvas' 7-year-old gym is named Forever Young, which probably sounds like an oxymoron to pessimistic boomers. Frank came up with the name after realizing "I was looking better than I looked when I was 20," he says. "It seemed obvious that if you took care of yourself and trained, you wouldn't get older, you would last forever."

The Cuvas are not suggesting immortality. What they do promise is that a well-maintained body will provide its occupant with a constant level of energy and vitality all the way through the long journey. "Exercising is better than medical insurance," Karen says. "When you get old, you'll still have a body that's working."

A working body is fine, but Cleo Katz of Woodland Hills also wants one that looks good. Katz, a 58-year-old real estate lecturer, has made up her mind that she is "not going to go downhill." And after six weeks at the gym, she is seeing definition where wrinkles used to be. Her goal is to be able to wear a bikini and compete in body-building contests "to show people you get better as you get older."

But getting better takes work. While cardiovascular exercises such as running and cycling will keep the body's engine purring, the only way short of plastic surgery to improve and preserve the exterior is to lift weights. And yes, definition is possible even in middle-aged people, the Cuvas say.

But couch potatoes and chronic dieters probably will never replace a bulge with a ripple. "If you're not an athlete, 40 is old," Frank says. "Even if you play golf and tennis, you won't be in that great shape for body building--it'll take you a year of hard work--but for people who have been up and down in weight all their lives, their skin will not get tighter no matter how hard they work."

The cumulative effects of bad habits also hinder the quest for eternal youth. "If you're a smoker and a drinker, you'll never get definition," says Cuva, who feels that men make faster progress than women. "Men have more muscle mass to begin with. It's also not as much of a job for a man to lose weight." And while most men have had at least a little experience lifting weights, older women usually "don't have an idea how to stress a muscle," Cuva says. "They have to be taught the mind-muscle connection."

Older people need to be careful lifting weights. "You have to do different training at different stages of your life," Frank says. "In your 20s, you're going to (the point of) failure all the time. Your ligaments and tendons can take it. But at 40, you do that and you'll rip your joints out of whack."

To avoid injury and still maximize the workout, Cuva has his customers do a series of exercises to pre-exhaust the targeted muscle group before lifting weights. That way, less weight will be needed to effectively work the muscle group. "It's the amount of weight that causes damage, not the number of repetitions," Cuva says.

And repetitions are important because they also produce a cardiovascular workout. "As you get older, you have to cut the rest-period time (between reps) for conditioning," Cuva says.

Unfortunately, staying young forever doesn't come cheaply. A month of training--three one-hour sessions a week with a personal instructor--costs about $420. But if you can afford to pamper yourself, Katz says, the rewards come quickly.

"I have more energy now than some of my daughter's boyfriends," says Katz, who began working out to strengthen her knees for dancing the Texas two-step at a Canoga Park cowboy club. "After the third week with Frank, I could dance for three or four hours. I should have done this for myself a long time ago."

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