The physical therapy pool at a West Los Angeles sports medicine clinic is bustling with people who are rehabbing sore or surgically repaired hips, knees and shoulders. Their faces occasionally wince as they slowly struggle through underwater exercises.
Then, a strapping older man with a full head of silvery hair, a bodybuilder's physique and a George Hamilton-like tan and smile struts poolside. It's Bob Delmonteque, a former model, fitness author and trainer, who's there for a minor tuneup to fortify his lower back. The 6-1, 200-pounder glides into the water, chatting with and charming the others, as he makes his way to the deep end of the pool.
"He's how old?" asks Mildred Hattenback, 82, as she exercises after undergoing a recent knee-replacement surgery. "How old did you say?"
Eighty-four, she is told.
"Oh my God," says the Beverly Hills resident. "Is he really? He looks terrific. He looks like he's in his 60s."
When some people see Delmonteque's photo, they think it's been digitally altered. When others see him in person, they think he's been surgically altered. Neither is true, he says. Instead, the former Mr. Universe contestant has dedicated his life to personal fitness, sculpting a body that would be the envy of a person less than half his age.
For more than half a century, Delmonteque's physique, conditioned since his teenage years through a strict regimen of exercise and diet, has been the central focus of a wildly colorful life. The Texas native has trained Hollywood movie stars from Marilyn Monroe to Matt Dillon, some of the Apollo astronauts, and written seven fitness books and numerous magazine articles. He has also owned a health club and still serves as a pitchman for nutritional supplements.
"I see myself as the Pied Piper, with thousands following me," says Delmonteque, whose latest book, "Lifelong Fitness 2004," shows off a stunning set of chiseled chest, arm and ab muscles -- and touts him as "America's No. 1 senior fitness expert."
While some (Jack La Lanne, for example) might quibble with that self-proclaimed title, health experts say there's an important role that super-fit seniors such as Delmonteque can play: inspirational role model. As health experts and gerontologists struggle to get the message out to seniors about the benefits of fitness, Delmonteque offers vivid proof of what can be accomplished -- even by someone in his or her mid-80s and beyond.
More than two-thirds of adults older than 65 have no exercise program, according to the National Institute on Aging in Washington, D.C. The figure isn't terribly surprising, say gerontologists, given the persistence of negative stereotypes that put seniors in a rocking chair rather than, say, on a bicycle.
NIA researchers have developed a new phrase, "exceptionally healthy aging," to describe seniors like Delmonteque. This not only includes people who are in phenomenal shape, but also anyone who is largely free from the chronic conditions normally associated with advanced age.
"We want to change people's idea of what aging is," says Chhanda Dutta, the institute on aging's chief of clinical gerontology. "Old people are a heterogenous population; they come in all shapes, sizes and fitness levels. Getting old doesn't mean you have to fall apart."
Gerontologists hope the largely sedentary public will seize the opportunity to boost their quality of life by embracing a daily fitness program. And it's never too late to get going, they say. Research has shown that regular cardiovascular and weight training, for as little as six weeks, can significantly improve the strength and stamina of adults even up to age 100.
The goal is not necessarily to become a magazine model for senior fitness like Delmonteque. For many seniors, the object is more basic: to be able to open a jar, lift a bag of groceries onto the counter, walk up a flight of stairs or avoid a fall, says Ken Mobily, a professor of exercise science at the Center of Aging at the University of Iowa. In short, fitness will increase the likelihood that a senior will be able to live independently for a longer period of life, he added.
"We talk about a rectangular life," says Mobily. "Instead of succumbing to a slow, gradual death with an ever-deteriorating quality, you live a healthy and fitful life."
If anyone is on track for a rectangular finish, it's Delmonteque. Besides the benefit of good genes -- his parents and grandparents lived into their 90s and 100s -- Delmonteque's daily rituals have helped ward off major illnesses and chronic conditions for more than six decades.
"When I die they are going to have to take my heart out and beat it to death," he likes to joke.