Special Features — 21 November 2014
Getting into the best shape of your life, after 50

From PRIME, a special issue of City & Shore Magazine

By Deborah Wilker

Can we really be as fit and active at 50, 60 and beyond as we were in younger days? How about even fitter?

Just a quick glance at magazine covers and paparazzi snaps seems proof that midlife is less about winding down these days and more about kicking it up.

Whether it’s Christie Brinkley posing seductively in a bright blue bathing suit at 60, Bruce Springsteen, 64, sporting a six-pack while paddle-boarding shirtless or country superstar (and CrossFit addict) Tim McGraw, 47, showing off a body as ripped as any Olympian, the key question is “are these people somehow aging in reverse?” Just this month, 63-year-old Cheryl Ladd tells us she’s gained barely a dress-size since she first came into our homes in prime-time more than 40 years ago.

Of course reams of research supporting the benefits of exercise and nutrition have been known for decades. But gaining steam in recent years are the anti-aging benefits to taking that work-out to the next level.

But is this kind of fitness later in life even possible for mere mortals, or is it solely the domain of performers who need those professional physiques for work and have lots of money to throw at the quest?

According to The New York Times Best Selling Younger Next Year series, exercise jolts cells into renewal; and that after age 50, there is simply no better way to improve than through fitness. On that note, we asked some devoted later-in-life athletes for their perspective – and a little inspiration.

Sgt. Billy Hodge

On an average day, Sgt. Billy Hodge of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office may sprint through alley-ways, crouch in stairwells, or reach for his gun with lightning precision, all while out-running colleagues and criminals less than half his age.

Hodge, a 56-year-old retired naval petty officer, former semi-pro football player, light middle-weight boxer and now on his second tour as a cop, says he thinks the exceptional fitness level he has maintained throughout his adulthood is absolutely normal.

“This is just how it is,” he says at Busy Body Fitness Center in Boca Raton, where he teaches several classes in addition to his full-time job. “You gotta be able to think on your feet – while you’re exhausted.”

Hodge, like many athletic trainers and aging athletes, believes that mid-life fitness isn’t just about “maintaining” good health. We should instead be thinking about improving strength and conditioning, he says, even while the body is declining due to age. “All you have to do is start.”

Dr. Ray Belmonte

56-year-old Dr. Ray Belmonte, medical director of a Chicago surgical center and seasonal South Beach resident, agrees with Hodge. An anesthesiologist, former high-level competitive figure skater and now a coach, Belmonte says his own personal evidence about aging and conditioning is purely anecdotal – but enlightening.

“Our bodies have the capacity to do much more than we think,” he says. “People tend to underestimate what they’re capable of.”

Three years ago, at age 53, Belmonte ran the Willis (Sears) Tower Stair Climb in 23 minutes and 41 seconds. Last year, at 55, he climbed all 103 flights in just 23.14. On the ice, where he still works out weekly – decades after his contemporaries in the sport retired – he still rattles off serious double-jumps of competition quality, exceedingly rare for anyone past 40.

“I can only speak for my own experience but every year as I get older I realize that my metabolism is slowing so I end up pushing myself harder each year to kind of offset that natural decline. I’m just not gonna let nature win!”

He fights the fight by varying his workouts day to day: Yoga, ballet, boxing drills, weights, cardio, skating – and, he commutes to work by bike.

Gerry Bourret

But what if, unlike Sgt. Hodge and Dr. Belmonte, you’ve not been an athlete since childhood?

Gerry Bourret is 72, and spent much of his life without a regular fitness regimen. The Plantation resident, a retired operations director from upstate New York, has endured cancer, stroke, high blood pressure, cracked vertebrae, heart problems and the death of his 13-year old daughter – all life blows that would send most anyone into a downward spiral.

Bourret started thinking about turning his health around a couple of years ago. After a membership at a traditional gym didn’t work out, he joined the Plantation location of Orange Theory Fitness, a chain of interval training studios where 26 class-members work out together during a structured hour led by a trainer. Participants rotate among treadmills, rowing machines and weight-room equipment to obtain optimal fat-burning heart rates, which are monitored. The music is loud and the pace is fast.

“Was I overwhelmed the first few times? Yes,” Bourret says with a laugh. “But what I liked about it was they have it all laid for you. I don’t have to think. I like that a trainer’s watching over you.”

Now down 25 pounds to a sleek 174, and brimming with new muscle tone, Bourret has also kicked his cholesterol drugs, which had been costing him more than $2,000 a year, far more than his Orange Theory membership.

“Get strong, live long – that is my new motto,” he says.

Barb Thomas, M.S. in Exercise Science and Health Promotion, is a co-owner of the Plantation Orange Theory studio, and is also a National Academy of Sports Medicine trainer who has worked with Bourret. She calls him “an inspiration” and proof that we don’t have to decline as we age. Her tip for adding lean muscle includes upping your protein intake and resistance training. “It also builds bone density,” she says, “and you’ll have more energy.”

Belmonte’s advice for anyone just starting out: “Don’t ever feel badly that you’re not lifting 30-pound dumbbells or running at 10 miles per hour on the treadmill,” he says. “Something is always better than nothing. If you can only walk at a slow pace for five or 10 minutes at a time, that’s always better than sitting on the couch.”

Hodge says brisk walks are a great way to start – but think of them in terms of time, not distance. “Go for 30 minutes if you can. Make an appointment to do it. Meet a friend. Be accountable.

“There’s a point when we all have to become selfish. We have to take care of ourselves, or sooner or later we won’t be able to take care of anyone.”


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