Cecilia DiFrancesco may be more fit than her grandchildren. At age 78, the Plainville, Conn., woman illustrates the growing number of people over age 55 who collectively exercise more frequently than any other age group, a recent study shows.
The annual Superstudy of Sports Participation, conducted by the American Sports Data Inc. and sponsored by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn., surveyed 14,772 people over age 6 and found that 55 and older is the most fitness-conscious demographic group in America.
For two decades, seniors have been lacing up their sneakers to hit health clubs and senior centers to pump iron, jog, swim, walk or do any number of fitness activities. According to the study, one in four health club members is now over 55, up 379% since its initial study in 1987.
The study doesn't surprise Jack La Lanne, the veteran fitness advocate best remembered for his TV exercise shows popular in the 1950s and '60s. (Who could forget when he pulled a boat with his teeth?) Kids don't exercise or eat healthfully, La Lanne said, because they're not taught to do so.
"They're human garbage cans," La Lanne said. "These kids are not just getting enough exercise.... [They think] they're indestructible. It's a travesty."
At the same time, La Lanne said, "older people are getting smarter." So are doctors, who advocate exercise, particularly building muscle. "The more muscle you build, the more calories you burn," La Lanne said. "Older people should be working out more vigorously. They should be weight training. It's got to be tough. You got to keep it moving. Get that sweat going. Get that heart beating."
At age 86, the 150-pound La Lanne continues to exercise seven days a week: one hour of weight training and one hour of resistance training in water, changing his routine every 30 days to prevent boredom.
La Lanne, who lives in Central California with his wife, Elaine, 75, advises exercising for at least 40 minutes a day, three times a week. "Train like you're training for life," La Lanne said. "Exercise is a lifestyle, just like you eat and sleep and everything that you do. It's just something you have to do."
In response to an influx of regulars interested in fitness, the Plainville, Conn., Senior Citizens Center added an exercise room in March containing an exercise bicycle, a treadmill and a seated stair-stepper called Nu Step. The exercise room serves about 90 members, said Ronda Guberman, assistant director at the center. The facility also has motivated longtime members like DiFrancesco to start exercising. Before DiFrancesco discovered the Nu Step, she could hardly walk because of a ruptured disc in her back. Now, she says, she's stronger.
"I found when I started exercising, it was feeling more limber," said DiFrancesco, who exercises 20 minutes each morning. "I have a bunch of girlfriends I go out with every week, and I'm in better shape than they are. I'm always moving."
Exercise has improved many seniors' abilities to do simple tasks that they weren't able to do before, such as pulling a shirt over their head, combing their hair or exiting a car, Guberman said.
People 55 and older exercise more often than people 12 to 17, the study shows.
"Kids today," said Agnes Ogonowski, 70, of Bristol, Conn., "you wonder what's going to happen when they're older."
Ogonowski, who has high blood pressure, exercises using a Nu Step and a treadmill, and walks a half-hour every other day in her neighborhood. Her goal is to live longer than her four sisters did; they all died before 80.
"I did lose 3 pounds in a month. I just feel better," Ogonowski said. "Even my legs feel better. I wish I could come every day. You just don't find the time," she said.
At Cornerstone Aquatics Center in West Hartford, Conn., people 55 and older make up a strong segment of the clientele, said Don Bettencourt, president of Aquatics for Life, which operates the facility.
Twenty years ago, Bettencourt said, mothers were the primary demographic group using the center. But when mothers began working, he said, seniors quickly filled the pool they left empty.
Throughout the day, a steady flow of seniors swims laps and does water aerobics at Cornerstone. Seniors jump into pools because it's easier on the bones and allows the body to work hard without feeling hot.
"We had a 97-year-old swim in one of our meets," Bettencourt said. "I think there's a work ethic that you don't see with the younger generations."