Catch-Up Fitness

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Last January Richard Angwin, 58, ran into a neighbor he hadn't seen in more than a year. "Do I know you?" the neighbor asked. "I told him who I was, and he said, 'Holy cow! Where's the rest of you?'" Angwin recalls.

No wonder the neighbor was puzzled. In less than two years, Angwin, a 6-ft. 1-in. clinical counselor in St. Petersburg, Fla., has lost more than 130 lbs. With a healthy diet and daily exercise, he dropped from 367 lbs. to 235 lbs.

Angwin, a late-blooming fitness fanatic, is an exception to the country's otherwise alarming fat stats. More than 63 million Americans are overweight, according to government data, and only 1 in 4 adults satisfies the minimum recommendation of 30 minutes of moderate activity most days of the week.

But Angwin is not the only mid-life American to catch the fitness bug late. Adults 55 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the fitness industry, with health-club memberships for this age group up more than 350% since 1987, according to American Sports Data Inc., a New York City-based research firm. Why? "Exercise for older adults is not something considered vaguely deviant anymore," says Harvey Lauer, company president. "Women are allowed to sweat, and men don't have to be highly trained athletes to enter a gym. It's a big switch."

Like many baby boomers who radically alter their health habits, Angwin had an "aha" moment. Two years ago, his doctor warned that his high blood pressure and diabetes were potentially lethal. At the time, says Angwin, "I was the same size and age as my father when he died of a massive heart attack, so the message hit home."

A veteran of many failed diets, Angwin finally revamped his eating habits, which he figures totaled 6,000 to 8,000 calories a day. And for the first time, he introduced daily exercise into his regimen. Under a personal trainer's guidance, he began walking for 20 minutes a day, then slowly added running, biking and swimming. "The first time I ran a mile — what a joy," he says. His next goal was an AARP-sponsored triathlon for older adults, in which he completed a 400-m swim, 20-km bike ride and 5-km run. In February he ran his first marathon, wearing the number 367 (his former weight) and dedicating the event to his father's memory. "I ran in the back of the pack, but at least the gate was still open when I finished," he says.

Doctors once warned older adults against vigorous exercise. Now many promote the benefits of physical activity as prevention against age-related decline. Dr. Laurel Coleman, a geriatrician in Augusta, Maine, gives her patients written prescriptions for weekly weight-training sessions. "Some of them say, 'Oh, come on, you're kidding!' because they don't picture themselves lifting weights," she says. "So we start off doing biceps curls with cans of soup, or leg extensions with tiny ankle weights."

Slow but steady is the best approach for exercise neophytes, says Bess H. Marcus, director of physical-activity research at Brown University's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine. "You don't take a sedentary person and say, 'O.K., go to the gym every day, or go run five miles.' You help them set realistic short-term goals so they are successful." A user-friendly class at a Y, community center or health club can ease a first-timer into a routine, she says.

A few sessions with a trainer two years ago helped Barbara Manring, 57, of Great Barrington, Mass., overcome her timidity in the gym. "I was never a cream puff, but I hadn't exercised in 10 years and wanted more muscle tone," says the former teacher. After nine months of five or more workouts a week, Manring saw huge gains in strength. Now she gets respectful glances from buff young body builders as she leg-presses 400 lbs. and knocks out 100 full-body push-ups. "I never could have done that when I was younger," she says. "It's wonderful to have that feeling of pride. You feel you're not limited by your age."

Exercise has enormous health and psychological benefits for older adults. Regular workouts reduce or prevent many age-related illnesses — heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression and even mental decline. "If exercise were a pill, it would be the best-selling medication in the world," says Miriam Nelson, director of Tufts University's Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition.

After age 40, adults lose a quarter to a third of a pound of muscle a year and gain that much body fat, a condition known as sarcopenia. "You get that typical, pudgy 'old-person look,'" says Nelson, "and eventually you become so weak, you can't walk up stairs or get out of a chair without help." Twice weekly 45-minute sessions of strength training, she says, can reverse or prevent age-related muscle loss. In four weeks, grocery bags feel lighter, and in six weeks, arthritis pain may lessen. Women in Nelson's weight-training studies usually drop a dress size or two and gain the confidence to adopt a more active lifestyle.

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