How Fit Should a Senior Be?

I am ashamed of myself.

I have always considered myself to be pretty fit. I walk steep hills several times a week and lift weights every other day. I’ve been the same size for decades. Hey, I’m turning 60 and my arm only hurts a little from all the patting myself on the back I’ve been doing. Now, however, my healthy diet must include a big piece of humble pie.

I interviewed three Oregonians for this story about fit seniors and learned that I am a slacker, a lazy bum. On the other hand, these amazing people did inspire me with their upbeat attitudes about staying fit.

Gerel Blauer, 81, has always participated in sports. As a kid, she played tennis at Stroheckers, rollerskated on the sidewalk and rode her bicycle everywhere. “There were no helmets in those days,” she adds.

Today, she has a definition of “fit” that works for her. “I still can do my own thing: garden, tennis, volunteer, drive at night and enjoy the outdoors.” That, though, only hints at a life that would exhaust someone half her age.

Take the gardening. When she was raising her family – four children in five years – she didn’t have time to exercise much, but she’d gotten the gardening bug from her dad so she turned to that. In 1986 she took a class and became a Master Gardener and a big fan of what she calls “manual work.” At Cedar Sinai Park she volunteers to create “healing gardens.” CSP’s Debbi Bodie calls her “a blessing.”

Gerel also lifts weights and plays competitive tennis three times a week. “I think I’m the oldest woman player there. My dear younger friends don’t seem to mind, though, since I can still move pretty well.”

Many in her family were avid golfers, but she gave it up because it took too much time from tennis. She misses cycling, which she used to enjoy, and no longer skis. My question is: when would she fit it in anyway?

Why does she do it? “The world is so exciting,” Gerel says. “I want to be around for the changes. I want to enjoy my family.”

And, of course, “It’s all so fun!”

Jeanne Newmark, 82, is also fit and healthy. Like Gerel, she swears by weight training. Her physician sent her to the gym nine years ago to fight her osteoporosis. Now her twice-weekly sessions with a personal trainer are a part of her life. She got much stronger and her balance improved; her osteoporosis and the medications she needed for it are no more.

Jeanne also loves to swim. She first learned, as did so many others, in Mickey Hirschberg’s classes at the Jewish Community Center. She later swam on the Lincoln High swim team. For the past 25 years, though, she has been on the masters synchronized swim team at the Multnomah Athletic Club.

The ladies practice two hours, twice a week and have won the national title in their age group for the past 14 years. Six years ago, in the 70-80 (average age) category, they placed higher than the groups in their 60s. Last year they were the first group in the country to compete in the 80-90 age class.

Next year will be a challenge, but it is one Jeanne is “thrilled” to take on. Her team will compete in a younger category because they added three younger swimmers – one of them is Jeanne’s daughter Phyllis, 57.

“The coach is putting together a mother-daughter routine for us,” Jeanne told me.

How many people meet their 80-something mother twice a week … for competitive swimming?

Gerry Leshgold’s wife, Evelyn, says that their friends in Portland call Gerry a “fitness idol.”

And no wonder. Gerry, 93, plays golf two to three times a week and tennis three times a week when they’re in the desert. He plays a little less tennis when they are in Portland. Here he often prefers racquetball.

“I’m always the oldest guy,” Gerry admits. His Portland golf buddies – David Lippman, Bill Galen and Irv Leopold – are youngsters in their 80s. His desert tennis friends are in their late 70s and early 80s. On the racquetball court, he has to dip even lower.

“I have to play with kids who went to school with my kids,” he says. “There’s nobody my age left!”

Gerry admits he has been in locker rooms all his life. In high school he played basketball, baseball and football. He used to play handball at the old JCC. But he is quick to say that anybody can “go in there and tune up your body.” He cites the “great fitness center at the MJCC” as one entry point for people who don’t know how to get started.

Gerry also gives Evelyn a lot of the credit for his good health. They’ve been married more than 70 years and, he says, “She takes good care of me.”

I know what you’re thinking. These people are athletes. They’ve been doing this all their lives. But while that’s true, each of them stressed that anybody can make themselves stronger and fitter with even a little bit of the right exercise:

“Look at your future. You can make it better.”
– Gerel Blauer, 81

“Any little first step would be wonderful. Don’t think about a three mile hike. Just walk around the block.”
–Jeanne Newmark, 82

“You are never too old!” – Gerry Leshgold, 93

I’m feeling a whole lot better about all this. It’s not too late for any of us!

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