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Pushing your body to the max

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By Brian Goslow

Deb Kranich Riel, 58, of Worcester, put her body through the paces. She paddles her whitewater canoe year-round in the waters of New England and Ontario. When she’s not in the water, she’s out with her “living treadmill,” a Plott Hound named Trigger, walking several times a day.

Marty Ayotte, an “incomplete paraplegic,” prepared for his 60th birthday putting in 50 miles of roadwork in his hand-powered cycle. The Worcester resident is now preparing for a fresh season of skiing on a seat ski at Wachusett Mountain.

Charlie Erban, 71, of Andover, plays racquetball three hours a week; he recently finished fifth in the 70+ singles competition and fourth in the 65+ age group in the doubles competition at the National Senior Games in Cleveland.

Ann Hicks, 80, of Needham, continually practices for track and field events — the shot put, javelin, discus and hammer throw — a decline from the 11 she used to regularly participate in through most of the past two decades. Despite missing this year’s national competition due to injury, she’s got her eye on several world records for her age group.

All four are examples of people living healthy, active lifestyles. While everyone can’t be expected to be as competitive as they are, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to get long underused muscles back into shape en route to changing one’s health and body for the better.

“If you don’t use it you will lose it,” said Michael J. Cooney, D.C., of the Rutherford Allied Medical Group and Calmare Therapy Pain Relief Center in Rutherford, N.J. “Keeping fit is a necessity to ensure a better quality of life. Sports and other physical activities enable the body and mind to rebuild and repair itself.”

Erban and Hicks participated in the Massachusetts Senior Games, an athletic competition for men and women ages 40 years and up to face off annually in summer and winter sports; every two years, its top finishers in each sport move on to the National Senior Games.

While the Mass Games, which began in 1991, feature all of the traditional track and field events, managing director Larry Libow is looking to expand to newer competitions to attract a wider range of participants. Many of the current athletes are as highly competitive as they were in their younger days, which can be a challenge in trying to get more casual athletes involved.

“I’m trying to bring activities that will get people off of their couch,” Libow said. The rapidly expanding sport of Pickleball is one of those activities. Played on a court laid out identically to a tennis court but approximately a third of the size, participants use paddles and a hard Wiffle ball-like ball with holes in it.

“Basically, it allows older folks to play what is essentially a game of tennis (both singles and doubles), but without having to worry about covering so much court,” Libow said. New facilities for the sport are opening up throughout the region, especially on Cape Cod.

Libow also is trying to get a grandparent-grandchild day going at Wachusett Mountain — “Maybe both will learn to ski on the same day” — and establish a ballroom dancing competition, Libow said. “If we can get 25 couples to get up on the dance floor, that would be great.”

He said he’s working hard to increase his organization’s educational programs and fitness activities because the demographics say the number of older adults in the state is going to sky rocket in the years ahead. “We’re trying to get ready for that demographic shift,” Libow said.

Racquetball player Erban has been involved with the Massachusetts Senior Games for 15 years, and has participated in five National Senior Games. “The experience has been extremely positive,” he said. “You meet a lot of nice people working out having lots of fun.”

As of late, he’s been getting in three hours of court time a week at a club in Foxborough. “The workout level should be two or three times a week to maintain your skill level, but I’ve been looking after my dad,” Erban said. “My health, fortunately, has been excellent.”

When he can’t make it to the court, he keeps fit by doing leg lifts and in the summer, he puts in 10 to 15 miles on his road bike two or three times a week.

Erban has tried to encourage his friends to be more active. “Most people in their 70s, if they haven’t been doing anything rigorous, it’s hard to get them into it,” he said. “They don’t start unless they have a (health) problem (they need to address). Otherwise, they’re not going to get started.”

In multi-sport athlete Hicks’ case, she knows herself well enough not to stop, even though she’s battling arthritis. “My exercising keeps me pain free,” she said. “Sometimes when I’ve done too much gardening or too much training for one day, I might take some Ibuprofen at night. If I don’t move, I get very stiff. That’s one of the reasons I compete — by doing all these different events, I use all these different muscles and joints.”

Hicks recently suffered a temporary setback when she tripped in her new sneakers, resulting in a broken elbow that caused her to miss the National Senior Games for the first time in over two decades. It was a major disappointment for her as it would have been her first in the 80-84-age bracket in which she was striving to break several world records. She plans to try again in two years, but recognizes she’s up against the statistic that most people at her age lose 10 percent of their skill level each year.

But Hicks is not most people. “I love competition,” she said. She earned her first gold medal in 1991 and prior to this summer’s accident, had qualified for and won two handfuls of medals in all her events at the National Senior Games each year she competed. “I’ve got my eye on next year,” she said confidently. “I can do the local meets and still break the record.”

While she has been a trail setter in her own right — helping to establish girls high school track and field and then gymnastics on a statewide level in the late 1950s — she now finds inspiration in other athletes she’s seen at the National Senior Games.

“I’ve met a 100-year-old hammer thrower from Texas; he does the discus and he does the hammer and every time he throws it, he breaks his own world record,” Hicks said. “I’ve seen grandmothers pushing their walkers; they’ve got first place ribbons in swimming hanging off their baskets.”

Many of the patients of Nathan Wei, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist with more than 30 years of practice and clinical research experience based in Frederick, Md., continue to participate in sports well into their 90s.

“Aside from the medical benefits related to the heart, lowering body fat, etc., regular exercise retards the progression of sarcopenia, the muscle wasting that accompanies aging,” Wei said. “Sports and exercise also increase endorphin output, which can mitigate pain as well as help a person feel better in general.”

Wei noted that sports activities should be approached with the idea that an individual needs to be “in shape” to participate. “That means a regular routine of exercise that incorporates low impact cardio, resistances and stretching,” he said.

“Obviously, as patients get older there is a need to warm up and stretch both before and after a workout. This warm up and stretch routine is critical to avoiding injury. As people get older, they should also lessen the amount of high impact activity they do in favor of more low impact activities,” Wei said.

Hand cyclist Ayotte gave himself a great 60th birthday gift Oct. 12 when he finished the Hartford Marathon in 2 hours, 20 minutes and 24 seconds, earning him third place in the wheelchair division. To prepare, he had “climbed” the challenging Worcester Airport hill twice.

Ayotte was diagnosed with a tumor on his spinal cord in January 1988 and had surgery to have it removed. The tumor was benign but led to a weakness that has left him an incomplete paraplegic. He was depressed and found it unsatisfactory to use a cane for any distance, but his life changed for the better after his then 8-year-old son made a discovery in the window of a Worcester sporting goods store.

“He comes running out to the car, yelling, ‘Dad, Dad, you’ve got to see this thing,’ ”
Ayotte recalled. It was a black handcycle put on display by a local handicap organization. “I walk in, I check it out and say to the guy, ‘I need to get one of these to better my life.’ ” The store manager first had him test a hand-powered racing cycle, which proved difficult to use in getting around for regular living. The manager then replaced the racing cycle with a black cycle that has become Ayotte’s trademark.

Since that time, he’s been a familiar sight at events throughout the area. “The disability changed my life and the bike changed my life again,” Ayotte said. “It made me more active.” Along with the Hartford race, he has participated in the New York City Marathon. “There are a lot of people my age out there right now; we’re just smarter now about our bodies and nutrition and everything. I just naturally want to be constructively active.”

His athletic feats don’t end when the weather turns cold; he can regularly be found on the slopes at Wachusett Mountain. “Skiing is the most fabulous, fantastic thing I have ever done in my life,” Ayotte said. “I was attending the Wachusett Blues Festival one day and the director of their adaptive skier program saw me on that black hand cycle and said to me, ‘You look pretty strong, you ought to try skiing.’ ”

While initially looking at the director as if he were nuts, Ayotte was soon convinced that the adaptive equipment at the facility would allow him to fit into a ski chair. “I had never skied in my life,” he said. “I go up with steel toe boots and a hoodie and it’s like 10 degrees on the Bunny Hill. They put me in this sit ski and kind of pushed me down the hill a little bit. As I was going down I thought, ‘This is for me — I have to figure out how to do this.’ ”

Since 2005, he’s conquered a number of mountains. “When you’re up on top of Loon Mountain or Bretton Woods — and I’ve been to a dozen or more ski areas in New England and one in Colorado — it’s breathtaking.”

Whitewater rafter Riel was attracted by the excitement of paddling the rapids in her canoe after going on a rafting trip with her family. “My significant other, Rod, and I decided to try a whitewater tandem canoe instructional weekend sponsored by the Appalachian Mountain Club,” she said. “We were hooked.”

The year she turned 50, Riel started canoeing solo. “There is a fairly steep and interesting learning curve where you become more comfortable reading the river, catching eddies and maneuvering around the rocky rivers, and always practicing self-rescue,” she said. “It’s a challenge on a lot of different levels.”

Riel and Rod have a loose organization of paddling friends — both canoe and kayak — in various online newsgroups where they can make plans to get together, discuss the latest equipment, talk about their favorite rivers and techniques, buy and sell equipment or warn people about river hazards. “There’s really no criteria for joining other than an interest in the sport and a willingness to get out there and try new things,” she said.

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