Allen Zeltzer could have played football as a kid. Could have had his face mashed in, his knees twisted willy-nilly, his shoulder dislocated.
Instead, he was a couch potato. A fellow who never even rode a bicycle until he was cast, at 22, as a postal telegraph messenger boy in the William Saroyan play "Love's Old Sweet Song."
But the lazy kid has turned into a sports-minded senior. And sports -- a recreational form of exercise -- are giving Zeltzer the exercise that most doctors agree promotes longevity.
"My doctor says I have the heart of a 30-year-old," says Zeltzer, 71 and a professor emeritus of theater at California State University, Fullerton. Zeltzer began competitive bicycling when he was in his fifties, and now rides the Santa Ana River Trail for about two hours, three times a week.
Recently he was somewhere in the Dordogne Valley, leading a group of biking tourists through southwestern France.
Encouraging seniors to view exercise as sports and not dreary physical fitness routines is not always easy. Too many seniors equate sports with team activities popular 50 years ago, activities -- such as football -- designed for teenage bodies.
"Seniors have to learn to do more individual-type sports activities, like swimming and biking," says exercise physiologist Diane Edwards. "It's too hard to get organized teams together to do some things like softball."
Orthopedists agree that bicycling, swimming and walking are the three recreational activities most people can do long after bones get brittle, muscles won't stretch without effort and reflexes are too slow to slam back a tennis ball.
Tennis, jogging and marathon running are the high-impact activities of youth and middle age that do not wear well on 60-year-olds, although there are exceptions.
"Certain sports we know are bad on the joints -- high-impact aerobics, for example," says Steven Graboff of the Associated Bone & Joint Orthopedic Surgical and Medical Group of Westminster, Calif. "These activities add up and cause problems with feet, knees, hips and backs. Some people can do them their whole life and never see signs of wear and tear. But others need to steer to low-impact activities as they age."
Robert Bielen, sports medicine specialist in Irvine and clinical assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, believes that people should listen to their bodies. Passing the half-century mark means hearing a new set of words to live by, he says.
"They should be, 'No Gain with Pain,' not 'without Pain,' " Bielen says.
"Pain is not good for you. When you ache, take a day off. Whenever we work out, we tear down things like muscle fiber. As we age, it takes longer to achieve repair."
Bielen expects his younger patients -- those who are under 50 and lead active lives -- will be active longer and live longer than the current senior generation. And he expects the senior generation can derive greater benefits if the sport is well chosen.
"Golf is a sport, but not much of an exercise," Bielen says. "Softball does not have much exercise associated with it. Tennis players have to move from singles to slower-paced doubles matches.
"Instead of waiting for a group to get together and do something, the individual should get going alone -- biking, swimming, walking. These things can be done whenever you want to do them."
When joints creak, common sense should take over, says Herbert deVries, 72, professor emeritus of exercise sciences at the University of Southern California. DeVries is the author of "Fitness After 50" (Scribner & Sons) and a pioneer of the theory that oldsters should get out of their rocking chairs.
"If one goes about it properly, with appropriate care for the fact that older people can't start right in with a vigorous workout program, seniors can improve their aerobic capacity, oxygen transport, blood-pressure levels, heart functions, ability to relax, just by getting involved in sports," he says.
If the joints hold up, the rewards of vigorous sports activity can be silver cups and platters, trophies won on the master's tennis tournament track for senior players.
There are a number of activities recommended, with some caveats, by sports medicine specialists and fitness experts for older Americans. Among them:
Biking. A popular sport in many areas of the nation, it also can be one of the most dangerous.
Michael Chapman, chairman of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons' committee on traumas, says every year bicyclists have a higher incidence of severe head injuries than motorcyclists. Three of four head injuries are fatal, according to Maturity News.
Regular biking also can cause chronic pressure injuries that lead to symptoms ranging from recurring pain in the hands, neck, shoulders and knees to male impotence. Nerve damage in the groin area from a poorly adjusted or improperly sized seat can lead to impotence problems.
Riders can avoid problems by wearing a helmet and bright reflective clothing and fitting the size of the bike to the rider. When the rider straddles the bike, there should be one or two inches of space betwen the groin and the bike frame.
Walking. For new-timers, a walk around the block is okay, but the goal should be a minimum of 20 minutes of walking, according to sports medicine specialist Robert Bielen. Be sure to wear shoes designed for walking.
As endurance improves, increase the pace of the walking. Swing arms and twist trunk to add upper-body exercise.
Jogging/Tennis. "The guy or gal who has been running or playing for years and years can probably continue, but we don't know which will have that ability," says exercise specialist Herbert deVries.
He recommends avoiding heavy-impact activities that are hard on ankles, knees and hips. Tennis also can be a problem for shoulders, wrists and elbows.
Swimming. "The perfect aerobic exercise," according to Sammy Lee, because it provides upper as well as lower body exercise. Aerobic exercises in water will stretch legs and muscles without trauma, Lee says.
The Aim of the Game
Seniors need to increase sports activity with caution, says Robert Bielen, sports medicine specialist and clinical assistant professor at University of California Irvine.
Don't jump into activities without warming up, he says. The older the muscles, the more they need to be stretched first.
"You can't go out and immediately play tennis for two hours without some consequences," he says. Aches and pains can be cumulative, leading to discomfort that will not go away without medical advice.
"Don't push too hard. If you are over 40, it's good to have a day or two of rest between a day of activity," he says.
Bielen says any sport -- bicycling, walking, swimming -- requires a minimum of 20 minutes of activity for health benefits.
Endurance is more important than the difficulty of the activity, says Steven Graboff of the Associated Bone & Joint Orthopedic Surgical and Medical Group of Westminster, Calif.
Moving slowly, but moving for a minimum of 20 minutes, produces the greatest benefit.
Walking is cited as the best physical activity for anyone.
Herbert deVries, author of "Fitness After 50" and a specialist in exercise science, says the best way to get into sports is "buy a golden retriever and take him for a good, long hike.
"Walking ... requires no special equipment, can be done in any climate, and if it's raining, you can go to the mall."
He adds: "Almost all of the benefits, with respect to preventing coronary problems, are gained by expending 2,000 calories a week above the normal routine. For most people, that translates into 45 minutes of activity, three days a week.
"If you want to lose weight and maintain the optimal benefits for your age and height, it takes more work."
DeVries, 71, works out 1 1/2 to 2 hours daily, hiking, surfing or rowing.