Getting fit for life

Strains of Pachalbel’s Canon fill the dusty interior of the YMCA gymnasium, floating down to the gym floor where a group of exercising figures rhythmically stretch their limbs.

In this group, hair is a little more grey and a little less abundant than it used to be. Bones are more brittle and limbs may lack the elasticity they once had, but there is a vivaciousness present that makes such observations superficial. Although the average age in this class is 65, the fragility and shuffling so long associated with golden age is absent — here, movements possess a grace reserved for those who have known life and rejoice in their interaction with it.

Every Friday, Jake Smythe dons his red T-shirt and hits the floor like an alumni cheerleader to lead on his team. Smythe is a 60-something volunteer fitness instructor at the Central YMCA in Toronto, Ont. He coaches Prime Time, an exercise program geared towards those over 50, be they aging or first-time athletes.

“If I lose the strength in my muscles as I get older,” Jake says, “it will be harder to get out of a chair without assistance. My muscles will get stiff, and it will be hard to reach or bend or do any of the vement needed for daily living. People will say, ‘Poor old man, he can’t manage,’ and soon I will need assistance to do even the tiniest of things. The thing we hold most important is our independence, and when that’s gone…”.

Lifetime of fitness
It’s difficult to imagine Jake as anything but full of life and completely independent. A longtime champion of senior fitness, he wrote a report for the National Study of Fitness Canada on the subject in 1984. In this class for older people, Jake concentrates on improvement of cardio-respiratory fitness, muscular strength, and the development of joint flexibility to prevent stiffness and a loss of movement range. These three areas are vital, he says, in preserving the independence, dignity and ability of older people to function in daily life.

For Jake, the key to total fitness is more than longevity; it’s an improved quality of life that’s important.
“We can’t turn the clock back,” he chuckles, “but we  can sure wind it up.”

Don McGregor agrees. When the two worked as fitness directors for the YMCA years ago, he was Jake’s mentor. The master has now become the disciple — Don is in the Prime Time class three times a week and runs three miles before every class. He is 81 years old.

Enjoying life
Like Jake, Don feels very strongly about the role of exercise in later life, no matter when it’s started. “People have a misconception about retirement,” he says. “Some still think that retirement is withdrawing from the world, that life is over. Why, we’ve just learned to enjoy it!”

When he was, as he puts it,”a little younger” and living in Calgary, Don climbed mountains. He remembers the hours it took, the cuts and the bruises, to get to the top. But once he got there and saw the trees spread out below like a carpet, he felt great.

“This is why I still exercise,” he smiles. “It gives me the same sense of purpose and satisfaction I got climbing. It’s invigorating.”

While many people half his age might believe that “overwhelming” might more appropriately describe what Don’s talking about, there’s no doubt in this octogenarian’s mind that being alive means feeling good.

When Jim Forrest, 62, was told he had a heart murmur, he was skeptical. So were the cardiac professionals at Wellesley Hospital in Toronto. Forrest, an employee at Dominion Securities, had been running three times a week: 20 miles the first morning; six on the second; and another six on the third.

An experienced marathon runner for 10 years, he had qualified for the annual Boston Marathon with three hours and 14 minutes; and he had been training hard to qualify for the Marathon’s 100th anniversary in 1996.

Tests proved that Jim didn’t have a heart murmur at all, but an echo — his heart was so strong it was literally echoing off his rib cage. “I had never run a step in my life until I was 52,” Forrest boasts, “Today, I have the heart of a 30-year-old.”

But what about the rest of us, neither as mobile as Jake Smythe and Don McGregor nor up to a challenge to quite the same degree as Jim Forrest?

Fun a key element
It’s Jake Smythe’s view that exercise programs can be adapted for people of all levels of fitness and experience. To his mind, the key is fun, “augmented with some organized format,” he says. “Fun is an essential component of a fitness program.”

Exercise must also be loosely tailored to the individual, he believes. He encourages his class to pace themselves at whatever rate they feel comfortable, and accommodates both the aging athletes and nonathletes with music that allows some to do 15 repetitions of an exercise and some five without missing a beat or falling behind.

Commerically run health clubs are an option for some fit seniors, if they can hurtle the obstacles and prevailing misconceptions about fitness and the elderly.

Jim Forrest snorts at the idea of special facilities. “My body is working better than most,” he states. Yet when he started a serious running program, he was denied membership at a running club. “They told me I would need a specialized coach.”

However, more and more community centres across the country are organizing fitness classes for the 50-plus.

Back in the gym, silence and dust settle on the empty floor. The class has ended for another day. But Jake Smythe is still in motion, cleaning up, getting ready to leave. Vitality shining through his eyes, he bends down to retrieve the last abandoned towel; snapping it over his shoulder, he strides across the gym floor, and with a bound through the heavy doors, disappears into the night. On his way, no doubt, to his next activity.
Chris Cox, a Toronto-based marketing executive in the publishing industry, writes in her free time.