Baby Boomer Fit
Workout Warriors Ignore Age Barriers for a Challenging, Rewarding Path
It’s a weekday morning at the William R. Talley Recreation Center in Baker Park and, like most weekday mornings here, dozens of people are making their way inside the gym for some strength and cardio training. Nearly all of them are over the age of 50.
On this day, personal trainer Stephen Ames takes his class through a series of lunges, hip hinges, lateral jumps, push-ups and more, as classic rock pours from the gym’s speakers. In their final warmup, the participants walk around the gym to the strains of China Grove by The Doobie Brothers.
Then the workout begins.
Ames watches his charges closely, making sure they use good form. From lateral shuffles to front kicks, the exercises can be tailored to nearly any fitness level. Clutching barbells, they squat, then forcefully stand and thrust their weights skyward.
Lin Scheer, 67, of Middletown has been coming to the classes for five years. “If I’m not babysitting, I’m here,” she says. She worked out at the Fort Detrick gym for 14 years before she retired, but in her younger years, she rarely exercised. Now, she can’t imagine not coming to the gym. “I’ve made a lot of friends here,” she says.
The familiar opening of The Twist fills the gym and everyone stops exercising and begins to swivel their hips. This isn’t done for entertainment, even comedic, value. Moving the hips helps to loosen the joints, making them less stiff, Ames explains. It’s something most people, young and old, don’t do enough of, he adds. The Twist is just a different way of getting there.
Then again, the baby boomers have done a lot of things differently. Women entered the workforce at a much higher rate than their mothers and grandmothers. College students protested an unpopular war, and they declared, with youthful exuberance, “Never trust anyone over 30.” But now they’re all over 30. Way over. Born in the post-World War II years of 1946 to 1964, the oldest boomers turn 74 this year. The youngest will be 56 by year’s end.
But it’s never too late to adopt healthy habits. A study in JAMA Open Network published last year concluded that adults who maintained daily moderate to intense activity for most of their adult lives lowered their mortality risk by 29 to 36 percent. But taking up an exercise program in middle age gives you that same lower risk. Those who waited until ages 41 to 60 to get active have a mortality risk of 35 percent.
Ames, who specializes in biomechanics, works with people in their 50s and older through his business, Elevation Fitness. He encourages older people to keep moving. “Unless you’re 95, you’re not too old to do this,” he says.
As his class nears the finish line, he instructs them to do three rounds of pushups. Some participants start on their toes and move to their knees, while others only use their knees. Others held planks. But everyone is strengthening their core, their arms and their pride.
He closes the workout with some cool-down stretches and child’s poses, giving everyone a chance to reflect on all the good they had done for their bodies.
After the exercisers roll up their mats, Jan Lounsbury, 65, sets up pickleball nets. Lounsbury started pickleball games at Talley Rec four years ago. Pickleball courts are shorter than those used in tennis, and players use paddles instead of rackets. But Lounsbury, a former tennis player, says the workout is just as good.
Players skip from side to side and hop back and forth, keeping watch on the ball. “I taught for 30 years, and after I retired, I knew I had to do something,” she says. Pickleball is active, social and fun, and there’s a game seven days a week somewhere in Frederick.
Katrina Wolf is a Frederick physical therapy assistant, personal trainer and the owner of Agewell Senior Fitness. Wolf visits with seniors in their homes and works with them to recover muscle tone, strength and balance, allowing them to live at home and care for themselves.
“I encourage people to go to the Senior Center, the Y and the Talley Rec Center,” she says. The Frederick County Department of Aging, the Talley Recreation Center and the Frederick County YMCA all offer classes and activities geared to adults in middle age and older who want to get in shape.
Wolf offers her clients specific exercises helping them to build up muscle tone and improve balance. “I see what happens when people don’t stay active,” she says. The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that Americans get 150 minutes of exercise each week, along with two sessions of strength training.
Wolf has her clients do side-to-side lunges, single-leg stances, standing marches and other moves. These require balance and core strength, which will help older people use muscles that have been neglected, sometimes for decades. “If you don’t have strong ankles, your balance is compromised,” she says.
In her 16 years of working as an in-home physical therapy assistant, she noted that the generations that preceded the baby boomers were more likely to wait for instruction, while boomers ask questions. While older generations were more likely to have been physically active in their younger years, boomers are less self-conscious about going to the gym and working out. “What I observe is the baby boomers are more likely to self-advocate,” she says.
No Slowing Down
Spring Rridge resident Fred Schumacher isn’t your typical boomer. He runs 15 to 20 road races each year and is Gettysburg College’s strength and conditioning coach. His blood pressure and resting heart rate are like those of a young person’s. Not bad for 72 years young.
Schumacher doesn’t limit his strength training to two days a week. He’s in the gym five days a week now that he’s retired from a career in military and government service. He alternates upper body and lower body work each Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, he goes through the U.S. Army physical fitness test, which he first passed as a young recruit. He gets his cardio in, too, running anywhere from 3 to 10 miles.
He also works with college students, training them how to condition their muscles properly and avoid injury. Schumacher got his personal training certification after he retired. To do that, he took anatomy and physiology at Frederick Community College and exercise kinesiology at the University of Maryland.
In the kinesiology class, he had to do ladder drills, which test leg agility, along with other exercises. At first, he couldn’t keep up with his younger classmates, but gradually he became more agile and could hold his own. His instructor, who also once worked with the Washington Nationals, put the class through two hours of drills each week.
Schumacher has engaged in a lifetime of fitness. He’s completed 37 JFK 50 Mile races, an annual race each November that starts in Boonsboro. He ran his first JFK in 1974 in Army boots and PF Flyers, through pouring rain. “It was worse than Ranger school,” he says. “It was worse than Airborne school. I thought, ‘I don’t need to do that ever again.’” He changed his mind after he received his finisher’s plaque, however.
He continued to run, and has finished eight Steamtown Marathon races in Scranton, Pa. He has also raced hundreds of 5Ks and 10Ks. In September, he ran the Market Street Mile in 9 minutes, 40 seconds.
Schumacher runs sprints at the Maryland Senior Olympics, recently medaling at 200 and 400 meters, javelin, football and softball throws. He prefers to compete in events where he has a shot at a medal. “That’s the interesting thing about the baby boom generation,” he says with a laugh. “It is one of the most competitive age groups there is.”
Schumacher isn’t too competitive to learn, however. At age 60, he signed up for a track and field throw camp. He lined up along with high school students to learn how to throw the javelin, hammer and shot put. He returned a few times more as a camper, and then later as a coach.
A hip injury has slowed him somewhat, but he is working through that with a physical therapist. He also stays active in local marching bands, organizing the annual Echo Taps Veterans Day event and participating in various church events.
He hopes to run a few more JFK 50 Mile events, and he doesn’t plan to cut back. At a recent checkup, a nurse said to him, “You mean you’re over 70 years old and you don’t take any medications?”
Pam Parmer, 70, and her husband, Ron Stevenson, 79, met through running, and they’ve continued their active lives together at Asbury Methodist Village in Gaithersburg. The 55-plus community offers independent and assisted living arrangements along with full care. Parmer and Stevenson say Asbury’s range of activities help them continue their active, independent retirement.
They swim, they do yoga, they bike and they hike. They take classes in balance, strength and flexibility, which allows them to keep doing other activities. They also in-line skate.
“We keep moving,” Parmer says. Their vacations often involve hiking from inn to inn, with a trip planned this year for Glacier National Park. They don’t run marathons anymore, but years of running and cross-country skiing prepared them for the rigors of skating and hiking on uneven, hilly ground.
“I think we are both in very good health,” Parmer says. “I had a heart attack at age 63 and I never stopped exercising. I think because I’m in good shape is why it wasn’t debilitating. I have no heart damage.”
Susan Grotenhuis, family and outreach coordinator at Asbury, says physical activity often goes hand-in-hand with brain health. Researchers once thought people were born with all the brain cells they would have throughout their lives. Then researchers discovered that exercise stimulates neurogenesis, or the growth of new brain cells.
Brain cells are like other cells in the body. “If you don’t use them, the body will get rid of them,” Grotenhuis says. Exercise has been found to be one of the strongest contributors to neurogenesis. Others are learning new skills and doing activities that require coordination. One more reason why boomers are redefining the concept of aging.