Today's over-50 crowd has learned an important lesson from their doctors, media reports and health gurus, as well as from watching their parents' decline: Stay active if you want to stave off heart disease, diabetes and other killer conditions.
So they run, bike, play tennis, play golf, swim and even play basketball to an extent never before seen in people their age. And since it seems to be working for them, most baby boomers and seniors have no intention of stopping their athletic activity unless forced to by their doctors, extreme disability or death.
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Art Michaely, 71, of Des Plaines, a retired YMCA professional, said that he plans to continue playing racquetball at the Lattof YMCA near his home until he has "one foot on a banana peel and the other in the grave."
He takes to the court several times a week despite the fact that he has undergone two hip replacements and one knee replacement and has also had a severe shoulder injury. In fact, he is spending this summer on hiatus from the sport, thanks to a surgery done early in the summer to "refresh" one of his hips.
"I love playing racquetball and besides, I know that if you stop using your engine, the engine stops and I am not going to let that happen," Michaely said.
He began playing in 1962 while a student at the University of Illinois and by 1980 he was Illinois' state racquetball champion. At one time he ran the Chicago Metropolitan Racquetball League, which consisted of 110 teams, and he still runs an in-house racquetball league at the Lattof YMCA on Monday nights during the fall, winter and spring.
"I can't play at the level I once did, but I still enjoy the game and enjoy seeing my friends who also play," he stated. "In fact, seven or eight of us even go on trips together."
One of those buddies is Michael Kautz, 60, a local business owner who has been playing racquetball at the Lattof YMCA for 40 years -- injury-free.
"When I started playing, it was a really popular sport. You could barely get a court. Now, for me, playing racquetball is better than simply working out," Kautz explained. "It is a game so there is both competitiveness and camaraderie involved. Sometimes we even play for pizzas."
He admits that part of the reason he plays is to keep his weight down and his body in shape, but "it is also fun to see people that you have known for 20 or 30 years and play a game against them. We are all growing older together and I hope to continue to play for many years."
Marina Wray, a resident of Del Webb's Edgewater in Elgin, is still an avid cyclist at the age of 71, despite two bouts with a broken wrist. In fact, she organized that community's bicycle club which now boasts about 20 members, both men and women, between the ages of 55 and 78.
"We bike on Mondays and Thursdays, taking shorter trips of about 10 miles on Mondays and longer trips of as much as 50 miles on Thursdays, April through October," Wray explained.
She started cycling avidly about 30 years ago as part of a regimen that included Jazzercise and aerobics.
"I also try to eat well -- all to keep my weight down," Wray said.
During the winters, she uses a stationary bike in the Edgewater gym to keep in shape.
The retired Harper College computer customer support specialist said she simply loves biking area trails and has scouted out most of them. Her group bikes to Crystal Lake and also to Aurora, via the Fox Trail, on a regular basis and recently even visited the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, driving part of the way and biking the rest.
"We have lots of fun and usually try to plan to eat somewhere in the middle or at the end of each ride," Wray said. The Edgewater Bike Club also has an annual luncheon during the off-season and a picnic in the summer.
Wray said she just loves keeping active and riding her bike and has no intention of retiring her bicycle anytime soon.
At Carillon Club of Naperville, Karen Havel can often be seen playing a lively game of tennis or taking water aerobics in an effort to stay fit, despite the fact that in the past she has had a shoulder muscle tear and a tear of the meniscus in one knee and still suffers from arthritis in both knees.
"Exercise is boring, but tennis is fun. I started playing in 1974. My ex-husband and I decided to start playing and we didn't even know how to keep score," she laughed. "After that I took real lessons and played year-round, both indoors and out. My son is even a tennis instructor now."
As for water aerobics, she got interested in that low-impact exercise after moving to Carillon Club and seeing how much fun it was.
"I know that I need to exercise and I also like to do it because it is fun and I get to socialize," Havel, 68, explained. "In fact, I miss it when I am away and can't play tennis or do water aerobics. I actually feel like I am cheating myself. So I want to continue to do both as long as I am able."
Skip Wilson feels the same way about scuba diving. The 62-year-old Yorkville resident and hospital administrator is an active member of Aurora's Bottom Breathers Dive Club.
Wilson learned to scuba dive back in the 1970s when he was in the Army but for years only put on his gear to dive when we wanted to clean the bottom of his sailboat. Then, about four years ago while visiting Hawaii, he and his wife, Nancy, decided to take lessons and get certified together.
"There is another world under the surface of the water," Wilson explained. "It is so peaceful, and yet there is a sense of adventure and great freedom, too."
Depending on the conditions, diving can be easy or challenging. You can either float along and enjoy the scenery, or, particularly when exploring a wreck, you can find it both mentally and physically demanding, according to Wilson.
He dives both locally and around the world with the Bottom Breathers. He dives in a quarry in Kankakee about once a month and also dives in exotic places like Fiji and Hawaii.
"Regardless of your age, it is important to maintain a certain fitness level if you are going to scuba dive because once you are in the water, you are not only risking your own safety, but also that of your dive buddy and everyone else on the trip," he said.
Wilson himself was out of the water for quite awhile last year after breaking his neck (on dry land) and undergoing surgery and a lengthy rehabilitation. But now he is diving again and credits his friends at Bottom Breathers for helping him ease back into the sport.
"I will continue to dive until I am no longer able. In fact, once I retire, I would love to get a job as a dive master or in a dive shop or on a dive boat in Hawaii," Wilson said.
The trend of baby boomers and other seniors remaining physically active into their 80s and beyond has changed the face of active adult communities like the various Del Webb and Carillon communities.
Lynn Haars, property manager, and Carrie Schneider, lifestyle director, for Del Webb's 1,100-home Edgewater community in Elgin can rattle off more than a dozen active sports that their residents pursue regularly including swimming, walking, biking, pickleball, golf, water volleyball, boccie, tennis, baggo, basketball and some even participate in triathlons consisting of walking, swimming and biking.
Add to that the legions of women, in particular, who participate in pure exercise activities (yoga, Pilates, water aerobics) and they say that more than half of their residents work out regularly.
"Some of our residents even bring in outside personal trainers to work with them here in our facilities," Haars said. "This is definitely an active adult community, not a retirement community."
"We have a gentleman who is 92 who still walks outside or on the treadmill every day and a woman in her 80s who swims every day. It is fun to see people in their 80s and 90s who are determined to keep moving because they know that it prevents illness and makes them suffer less from aches and pains," she added.
Carillon Club of Naperville's Property/Activities Manager Rachel Hyde sees a similar level of activity at her 780-home community.
"Our residents seem willing to do almost anything to keep active," she said. "And as soon as people express an interest in an activity, we are willing to start offering it. We just started a new bike club and Zumba is very popular with the women here."
About half of Carillon Club's residents are making a conscious effort to stay active by participating in various sports they enjoy, Hyde estimated. The community offers a three-hole golf course, boccie, a fitness club with exercise classes, walking trails, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, tennis courts and a cycling club.