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'Never too late:' Las Cruces 81-year-old stays healthy, active with CrossFit
Las Cruces Sun-News - 5/1/2018
May 01--Las Crucen John LeRoy was 40 when he undertook a major lifestyle change, giving up smoking and taking up exercise.
A few decades have passed -- he's now 81 -- but his enthusiasm for staying fit has not waned.
LeRoy is an active member of a local CrossFit gym, a club where most members are half, or even one-quarter, his age. And he often incorporates other workouts, like bicycling, into his weekly routine.
For LeRoy, a retired electrical engineer and a U.S. Navy veteran, exercise is both a hobby and a lifestyle. Indeed, a focus on physical fitness is an approach that has loads of benefits for elderly residents, as well as younger folks who want to set the proper, healthy foundation for their senior years, according doctors.
In his late 70s, LeRoy decided to look into CrossFit, a program that incorporates various intense exercises, after he'd noticed his strength and endurance in other activities -- like bicycling, swimming and running -- was declining. Plus, the program seemed intriguing.
"I heard about it, and I thought, 'That might be fun to try,'" he said.
Working out not only for the young
Dr. J. Roberto Duran, who specializes in geriatric care and is the medical director at the Southwest Center on Aging, 1106 Centre Court, said he's often heard a certain falsehood: that exercise is for young people only.
"No, it should be completely (the) opposite," Duran said. "The older you get, the more exercise you should do. Intensity might not be the same, but the necessity is even more as you get older."
Duran said people who are aging tend to lose muscle mass, which leads to weakness. Osteoporosis, which causes brittle bones, is also a risk that goes hand in hand with aging. But those can be countered with exercise.
"I always tell people: 'Weakness leads to falls. Falls lead to hip fractures. Hip fractures are the No. 1 reason people end up in the nursing home,'" he said. "It's important you keep yourself strong, not only for gait and balance but for range of motion."
In 1996, the first-ever U.S. Surgeon General's report on the connection between physical activity and health assessed research on the topic, concluding there are a wealth of benefits for people of all ages by carrying out even moderate physical activity.
"A regular, preferably daily, regimen of at least 30 to 45 minutes of brisk walking, bicycling, or even working around the house or yard will reduce your risks of developing coronary heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer and diabetes," wrote former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala.
And people already exercising that much will "benefit even more by increasing the intensity of duration of that activity," she wrote.
A lack of exercise
Unfortunately, Duran said, many of his patients tell him they don't regularly exercise. He's often noticed, however, a difference among veterans. For many former military members, physical fitness is a way of life they continued past their service years.
Between 2003 and 2015, daily exercise and sports participation increased across teen and adult age groups, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the 15-24 age category, some 26 percent of people exercised on a given day in 2015, an increase of nearly 5 percentage points from 2003. That group was also the most likely among the data's three delineated age groups to exercise. A similar increase in exercising occurred in the 25-54 age category.
The lowest rate of exercise and sports participation among age groups occurred in the 55-and-older category. Less than 18 percent of people in that group exercised on a given day in 2015. That was only a slight increase from 2003.
Duran said he notices a distinct difference between his patients who exercise regularly and those who don't. While aging is inevitable, it's possible to slow some of its effects.
"The reality is, if (they don't exercise), I see patients in here in their early 70s and they're already walking with a walker," he said.
There are two types of exercise Duran recommends. One is cardiovascular activity, which increases the heart rate and promotes heart health, and the other is weight-bearing exercise, which decreases the risk of osteoporosis, among other benefits.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people who live a sedentary lifestyle are at greater risk for osteoporosis.
"Any weight-bearing exercise and activities that promote balance and good posture are beneficial for your bones, but walking, running, jumping, dancing and weightlifting seem particularly helpful," the Mayo Clinic website states.
A turning point
Age 40 was LeRoy's turning point in deciding to become physically fit. He first started out running. His boss at the time was a runner, which intrigued him. He then discovered a neighbor in his Syracuse, New York neighborhood also was a runner. He soon became an enthusiast himself and began competitive racing, including marathons.
At age 50, he retired. He and his wife moved to an island off the coast of Maine to build a home. There, they published their own running magazine for a number of years. And LeRoy added cross-country skiing to his list of physical activities.
In 2004, the couple moved to the Southwest, an interest that was sparked after reading an article in a running magazine about Albuquerque. They settled at first in Silver City for several years. By this time, LeRoy was participating in triathlons. He swam in the Western New Mexico University pool for practice. He continued running and bicycling.
To date, he's logged 122 triathlons and more than 500 running races of varying lengths.
About five years ago, LeRoy and his wife moved to Las Cruces, where he joined CrossFit Las Cruces. At first, he attended just two days a week, but he's worked up to four or five days a week. On a recent day, the workout entailed repetitively throwing weighted ball against a wall; sit-ups and pull-ups. The exercise lineup changes every day.
LeRoy is the oldest member at the gym. While he doesn't let that slow him down, he does take a more careful approach to certain exercises out of a concern for injuries.
"I push myself just like them," LeRoy said. "I'm just cautious from the balance stance and (of) falling."
Some gym members said LeRoy has a positive attitude and can often be found encouraging other people as they workout.
Duran said a positive outlook and healthy amounts of laughter can go a long way toward boosting a person's well-being as they age. Exercise also boosts a person's mental health, reducing the risk of depression.
Diet is another important component of staying healthy with age, Duran said.
LeRoy, who eats a mostly vegan diet, said he encourages people to take their health seriously, not only from an exercise standpoint but also by watching what they eat.
'Never too late'
Senior residents who haven't exercised much previously might be tempted to think it's too late to start, but Duran said that's far from the truth. While it's good practice to consult a doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen, there's most often some sort of physical activity a person can do.
For instance, water aerobics and water therapy can be a good choice for senior residents with joint problems or arthritis, he said.
"It's never too late to start exercising," he said. "Something is better than nothing."
LeRoy said he's seen gains in his muscle tone, all-around strength and flexibility. He admits that sometimes it's tough to get motivated to go workout. But once he's in the gym and exercising, he doesn't think twice.
"I know that when the workout is done, I'm going to feel a hell of a lot better," he said.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.
Exercise tips for seniors
--Work with your health care provider or a fitness professional to develop an activity plan that considers chronic conditions, activity limitations and reducing risk of falls.
--Focus more on increasing moderate activity and less on attaining high levels of activity, which has a risk of injury and lower adherence. Pick activities you enjoy and exercise at an intensity appropriate for you.
--You may find that you can gradually increase your physical activity over time.
--Pick activities that are fun, suit your needs and that you can do year-round.
--Wear comfortable clothing and footwear appropriate for the temperature, humidity and activity.
--If you choose walking as a fitness activity, pick a place that has a smooth, soft surface; that does not intersect with traffic; and that's well-lighted and safe. Many people walk at area shopping malls.
--Find an exercise companion to help you stick to a regular schedule and add to your enjoyment.
--Because muscular adaptation and elasticity generally slows with age, take more time to warm up and cool down while exercising. Make sure you stretch slowly.
--Start exercising at a low intensity (especially if you've been mostly sedentary), and progress gradually.
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