Blah and old. That's how Patricia Culbert of Waterbury, Conn., felt about herself at 58. "I thought, 'This is it, it's over. I'm done, and I'm not doing any more,'" she says.
The substitute high school teacher yearned for the energy of her youth, and thought that if she could only get herself to work out on a stationary bike for 15 minutes a day, she would feel better. She even promised her niece that she would do it.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
Weeks passed, however, and Patricia hadn't got anywhere near the bike. She felt like she was cheating herself and her niece.
So she searched the Web for a compatible activity that she could get excited about. That's when she found the AARP's TriUmph Classic, a triathlon race for people 50 years and older. Since one person or a group of three could perform the relay event, Patricia recruited her sisters -- a twin and one two years older -- to do it with her.
Patricia ended up training for the swim portion of the relay, even though she hadn't done a lap in 18 years. The first time she stepped into the pool, she was worried. "Oh my God," she thought, "My body's not doing what I want it to do."
But she pressed on, following AARP's training recommendations of gradually increasing the number of laps she could do without stopping. Twelve weeks later, at the official relay in San Dimas, Calif., Patricia swam her best ever: 400 meters nonstop in less than 11 minutes.
A Dive into Good Health
Experts in fitness for older adults aren't surprised about the benefits of water exercise.
"It's clear that aqua aerobics or water-based activities provide significant benefits for older adults, including increasing metabolism," says Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, PhD, head of the department of kinesiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At his former post at the University of Alabama, he led research for 15 years that looked into the effects of physical activity (both on land and in water) among older adults.
In addition to increasing metabolism, Chodzko-Zajko says physical activity in general improves cardiovascular health, increases strength, slows down age-related loss of muscle mass, and the decrease of reaction time that comes with getting older.