The new fitness freak is the 60-year-old who lifts weights every day. Or the 70-year-old who runs marathons. For some, regular exercise becomes the organizing focus of the week, the way raising children and building a résumé used to be.
"I do it -- it's like drink," quips Peter Barnes, who retired for several years after practicing law for more than 35 years in Washington and Baltimore. Now back to work in a less frenetic job, as a lawyer for the federal government, he goes to the gym five or six mornings a week for an intense regimen of spinning and body building. "It's very much an organizing principle of my week," says Barnes, 64.
In earlier years, driving carpool for the kids often takes precedence over doing step aerobics. Parent-teacher conferences rule out Pilates. On the treadmill of meeting the expectations of others -- children, spouse, bosses -- there is little time to also please the surgeon general by exercising every day. When he was in his forties and in the zoom zone of his career, Barnes explains, "I didn't have time to exercise. I gave everything I had to the job. I allowed myself to get swallowed."
But that chapter of adulthood eventually comes to an end. The children leave home, the job comes to an end. Suddenly there's time. Even too much time. When people stop working at a full-time job, they lose the rhythm of the work week. At first, it's wonderful to sleep late and do nothing. And then a sense of chaos may descend: So many ways to keep busy, but no regular schedule to organize the days. No overarching purpose to the week.
For Bill Matuszeki, who retired from the federal government several years ago, going to the gym three days a week replaced going to the office every day. Regular exercise gave him a basic structure on which he could schedule his other projects. He is a consultant on environmental issues. He has taken up water colors with his wife and they have just had a show of their paintings. He sets his own agenda for work and play.
But his schedule of exercise is inviolate. "Don't mess with me on Monday, Wednesday or Friday mornings," he says. "Having a schedule . . . that gets me moving. It does serve as an organizing principle."
Marj Radin, a health policy analyst in Boston, is training for her first marathon. She'll be 60 in March. "Exercise is a part of my life," she says. It is also a common ground with her husband, 70, whom she met three years ago on a bicycle trip. Both are training for the Boston Marathon and their days are organized around running. "It's good. We support each other while we're training. We're tired at the same time. You don't feel guilty if you aren't cooking dinner."
Radin, Matuszeki and Barnes all say they are fitter since making exercise a priority in their lives. All have lost weight and now maintain their desired weight through exercise. "You can eat what you want," says Radin, adding: "You don't get as sick."
"I'm the same weight I was when I was in high school," notes Barnes. "I'm much healthier than I was when I was 45." Not that he hasn't faced medical crises. At 58, he was diagnosed and treated for colon cancer. But today, when he reviews his whole health status, from cholesterol levels to mental energy, he says he is in better shape than before the illness.
What does the 50-plus fitness freak have to say to the rest of us?
First: it's never too late to start exercising. Getting in shape is possible at all ages -- though it's common sense to engage in physical activity all through life.
Second: Exercising has to be a priority. It must have a permanent place high on the weekly calendar. If physical activity only gets done after everything else on the to-do list, it won't happen.
Third: Public action is required. Officials have declared obesity a health hazard and recommend regular exercise for all. But who can find time to exercise if you're commuting to work and there are children to pick up from day care? When it's hard to find convenient and affordable facilities? Employers should allow for exercise breaks along with lunch breaks in a regular work day. Communities need to ensure that the streets are safe -- that there are sidewalks and paths to encourage walking, jogging and biking.
It's tragic that so many people are simply too stressed out to find the time and place to exercise and must wait until their later decades to make physical activity a daily habit.
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