Participation in the Maryland Senior Olympics has more than doubled since its inception in 1980.

Back then, approximately 300 young-at-heart seniors entered the event at Towson University, which has hosted the Games since its start. Last summer, nearly 2,000 athletes took part.

Executive Director Phil Adams expects this year's competition, which will be held from Sept. 8 to Oct. 3 at several locations throughout the state, to draw as many, if not more, competitors as a year ago.

"We not only retain participants, but we feel about 23 percent each year are new participants," Adams said. "The seniors of today aren't sitting around in rocking chairs. They are active even in their eighties. Maybe they are not playing football or basketball, but they are hiking, bird-watching . . . "

A recent Surgeon General's report on physical activity and health details the many benefits exercise gives older adults. The report states even moderate physical activity can reduce the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, colon cancer and diabetes.

Capital Heights resident Liz Claggett, who started swimming at 57, said the sport has helped her live more of a pain-free life. Claggett, who has competed in the Games since 1994, turns 66 in July. She's hoping to qualify for the National Senior Games, which will be held in October in Orlando, in swimming, the shot put, javelin and discus.

"The water is so good for the body. I had a problem with arthritis and the water has helped," said Claggett, who plans to compete in the Maryland Senior Games this fall.

In addition to the physical benefits, the Surgeon General's report also said exercise helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in the elderly. But there is one side effect Claggett has to face because of athletics--pre-competition jitters. But she tolerates it.

"When I go out there my knees are shaking like a leaf," Claggett said. "Everyone wants to win, but to participate is to win. When I finish, I thank God I'm a winner."