Time magazine June 2003
by Elizabeth Pope
Last January Richard Angwin, 58, ran into a neighbor he hadn't seen in more than a year. "Do I know you?" the neighbor asked. "I told him who I was, and he said, 'Holy cow! Where's the rest of you?'" Angwin recalls.
No wonder the neighbor was puzzled. In less than two years, Angwin, a 6-ft. 1-in. clinical counselor in St. Petersburg, Fla., has lost more than 130 lbs. With a healthy diet and daily exercise, he dropped from 367 lbs. to 235 lbs.
Angwin, a late-blooming fitness fanatic, is an exception to the country's otherwise alarming fat stats. More than 63 million Americans are overweight, according to government data, and only 1 in 4 adults satisfies the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.
But Angwin is not the only mid-life American to catch the fitness bug late. Adults 55 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the fitness industry, with health-club memberships for this age group up more than 350% since 1987, according to American Sports Data Inc., a New York City-based research firm. Why? "Exercise for older adults is not something considered vaguely deviant anymore," says Harvey Lauer, company president. "Women are allowed to sweat, and men don't have to be highly trained athletes to enter a gym. It's a big switch."
Like many baby boomers who radically alter their health habits, Angwin had an "aha" moment. Two years ago, his doctor warned that his high blood pressure and diabetes were potentially lethal. At the time, says Angwin, "I was the same size and age as my father when he died of a massive heart attack, so the message hit home."
A veteran of many failed diets, Angwin finally revamped his eating habits, which he figures totaled 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. And for the first time, he introduced daily exercise into his regimen. Under a personal trainer's guidance, he began walking for 20 minutes a day, then slowly added running, biking and swimming. "The first time I ran a mile — what a joy," he says. His next goal was an AARP-sponsored triathlon for older adults, in which he completed a 400-m swim, 20-km bike ride and 5-km run. In February he ran his first marathon, wearing the number 367 (his former weight) and dedicating the event to his father's memory. "I ran in the back of the pack, but at least the gate was still open when I finished," he says.
When Maida Kelly, 73, of Falmouth, Mass., signed up for Nelson's first strength-training trial 12 years ago, her idea of exercise was running over to a Filene's Basement sale on a lunch break from her job as a phone-company sales manager. After a year of twice-a-week sessions, Kelly's lower-body strength improved 41%, and her upper body improved nearly 86%. Now retired, Kelly has added Rollerblading, dancing and white-water rafting to her thrice-weekly sessions of aerobics and weight training. "At my age, there isn't anything that I can't do," she says. "Exercise has changed the way I live."
Not surprisingly, the fitness boom among older adults has led to a spike in sports injuries. Exercise newbies may suffer from flare-ups of old injuries or normal age-related wear and tear of tendons and joints. Overenthusiasm is another problem. "They make the mistake of upping the ante too far and too fast, doubling the time or the mileage," says Dr. Doug McKeag, director of sports medicine at Indiana University. A few minutes of warm-up and cool down, instruction from a certified trainer and appropriate safety gear can help.
Despite almost daily exercise, Angwin has avoided injuries. He runs at dawn to beat the Florida heat and varies his routine with swimming and cycling. "I'm as addicted to good health now as I once was addicted to unhealth," he says. "I can do anything a younger athlete can do. It just takes me longer."
How to Get Started
You should see a doctor before starting an exercise program. It's also a good idea to get instruction from a certified trainer on form. Then check out the following:
--www.strongwomen.com Miriam Nelson's site on strength training has three interactive fitness programs
--Active Living Every Day, by Steven N. Blair, Andrea L. Dunn, Bess H. Marcus et al. (Human Kinetics), details a program designed by top scientists at the Cooper Clinic and Brown University to help sedentary people become active
--www.activeliving.info Online courses based on the work of the Cooper Clinic and Brown University experts, plus links to classes in several communities.