January 18, 2011 in Features

Fit after 50

Getting in shape as we age is challenging enough; staying there in our golden years is even harder
Leanne Italie I Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Esther Robinson, 93, left, and DeEtte Sauer, 69, pose at an athletic club in Houston. Sauer is a medal-winning senior swimmer and Robinson likes to hit the gym for the weights, but also enjoys dancing.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

At 45, DeEtte Sauer was a dead woman walking.

She was morbidly obese, her heart disease so serious a doctor warned her to expect “an event at any time.”

Eaten up by her marketing career, struggling to raise three kids, she smoked, drank and never, ever exercised.

Sauer remembers a vacation when – at 5-foot-5 and 230 pounds – she couldn’t make it onto a small boat for a day out with her family.

“That’s when it hit me,” she says. “I was an elected cripple. I had done it to myself.”

So Sauer got busy, slowly shedding the weight through sensible eating and exercise. She began to walk around her Houston neighborhood, then she discovered the pool.

Now 69, the woman who once had a supermom complex is a competitive, medal-winning senior swimmer.

“It literally saved my life,” Sauer says, adding that her best event is the butterfly – a stroke she learned at age 62.

To trainers with lots of clients well beyond 50, Sauer is the holy grail, somebody who works hard and efficiently, taking care to avoid injury while maintaining motivation, strength and endurance through careful workouts.

Getting fit later in life is one thing, they say, but staying that way at 60, 70 and 80 is another.

“Going from running to walking, going from the treadmill to the elliptical as we age. … It can be really frustrating, mentally debilitating,” says Chris Freytag, a yoga and Pilates instructor and contributing fitness editor for Prevention magazine.

“Even for me. I’m 45 and say, ‘Oh God, I can just see it coming.’ There’s going to be some wear and tear. That doesn’t mean I have to give up, but I have to make some changes.”

Back, hips, knees, balance, cardio – all can be trouble spots and big blows to a positive attitude for seniors, say Freytag and fitness expert Denise Austin, who was Jack LaLanne’s sidekick on television and went on to her own workout shows, DVDs and books.

At 53, she has a new book out, “Get Energy!” (Center Street, 256 pages, $16.99).

Flexibility

Pilates and yoga are great ways to stay strong and flexible beyond 50 because both can be easily modified, the experts say.

“I’m into the core as you age,” Austin says. “Your spine is your lifeline. Keep it healthy, keep it strong.

“As we age we lose flexibility, and it’s really important to our tendons and ligaments to stay pliable and keep all the fluids in our joints going.”

She suggests increasing floor work to take pressure off the knees. Can’t touch your toes anymore? Use an elastic band for the same stretch, or to replace weight training that might grow dangerous.

Arthritis can make gripping difficult at a time when tissue is losing elasticity, which might mean giving up heavy free weights in each hand or on an overhead press.

“The technique isn’t there anymore, it falls down and they hurt a shoulder. I’ve seen it a million times before,” Austin says.

Taking the time to stretch, to reopen joints and muscles after a workout, is increasingly important as we age – particularly crucial at 60, 70 or older, says Freytag.

“The lower back and hip flexors get really tight. The two are correlated,” she says. “What I tell people is you are no longer able to skip stretching after a workout.”

Freytag recommends at least five to 10 minutes of stretching after a workout, when the muscles are warm.

Balance

Warming up before a workout is key to balance. For running seniors, Austin suggests five minutes of walking before getting into a gradual run, or intervals of walking and running.

“It’s very important as you age to change it up more, to surprise your muscles and work them differently,” she says.

Runners may need to balance workouts with more strength training and stretching to avoid hip and knee problems, adding muscle work for the abs so important for balance and flexibility. Add five minutes of strength training and five minutes of stretching, Austin suggests.

“Really concentrate on the center of your body, your core,” she says. “It is truly the powerhouse of your body. It affects how you walk, your flexors, it protects your back. That’s why Pilates is great.”

Balance issues don’t have to put an end to staying fit. Work out in a chair or use one to lean on if you’re feeling unsteady.

“There’s a ton you can do in a chair,” Freytag says. “In a gym, there’s a huge trend toward functional training, meaning doing things that kind of mimic the functionality of your daily activities.”

Standing on a dome-shaped Bosu ball is one example.

“You’re creating your own passive range of motion, whereas a machine in a gym is a fixed range of motion,” Freytag says.

Freytag called balance a “use it or lose it” proposition. “There are so many classes at gyms for folks over 60,” she said. “The biggest thing for people who are athletes already is to keep positive and just think about the fact that you’re going to train smarter. You’re not going to stop. It’s just that you have to change.”

Cardio

With heart disease stalking both men and women, aging doesn’t have to mean the end to a decent cardio workout.

Riding a bicycle is easier on the hips than running, for instance. Trim back on running to a couple of days a week and supplement on the bike.

“You can get on a bike and spin like heck,” Freytag says. “You can still push yourself as hard as you would have but with less pain.”

For runners who can’t bring themselves to give it up, run slower, walk and run, or cross-train. Freytag suggests cardio work four days a week but only at high energy twice in that period.

Dancing is also a good way to get the heart rate up, Austin says: “It changes movements, and it changes your muscle twitchings.”

At 93, Esther Robinson wouldn’t give up her life of fitness for anything. Active all her life, she still hits her local gym (“I like to bench press”), but dancing is something she can enjoy with others.

“When I was 60 or something, I got into square dancing,” the great-grandmother says. “I like the music and the movement of it.”

Or take a page from Sauer’s story and hit the pool.

Sauer didn’t start training hard until 11 years ago. She knew how to splash around, keep from drowning, but “I never had a swim lesson in my life, nothing.”

She showed up for her first session at a health club with a 23-year-old instructor “and I couldn’t make it across the pool. I wanted to quit. I felt stupid.”

But he wouldn’t let her give up.

“I’m stronger than I ever was at 45. I’m faster,” says Sauer, who competes in the National Senior Games and U.S. Masters Swimming events.

Sauer says her 78-year-old


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