A sport for life

Story and photos by Leigh Walsh

Raymond Haeckel, 73, is not one to sit back and let aging get the better of him. As he sits in the George S. Eccles Tennis Center in Salt Lake City, waiting for his practice partners to arrive, he reflects on the game of tennis and how it keeps him young.

“Tennis helps me age,” Haeckel said. “I feel my balance is better, I am more mobile and I can walk more briskly. Some people my age that don’t exercise have problems with simple tasks.”

Haeckel is determined to remain active and delay the inevitable aging process as long as possible. He credits his great quality of life and ability to be self-sufficient on his physically active lifestyle.

Raymond Haeckel, 73, prepares to return a shot during a tennis game at George S. Eccles Tennis Center.

Janet M. Shaw is an associate professor at the University of Utah who teaches courses specifically related to aging and exercise. Shaw said staying physically independent is an American ideal that we have as we get older.

“One of the goals of successful aging for most people is to be able to do things for themselves,” Shaw said.

Haeckel retired in 2002 from his job as the executive director of government, community and public relations at the University of Utah. At first he wasn’t too sure what he would do with all the hours in a day.

“I’m an anxious person. When I retired I didn’t have to deal with deadlines, and the fast tempo that I was used to had begun to slow down,” Haeckel said.

He knew he needed a plan, and one thing he was sure of was a portion of his time would be set aside to play some tennis.

Haeckel has made some lifelong friendships through the game of tennis. He meets with friends at least three times a week to play the sport they all share a common interest in. As Haeckel’s tennis buddies begin to stream in the door for today’s game, it is easy to see why he takes pleasure in these get-togethers.

Klaus Schmitt stands at the net during his doubles game at the George S. Eccles Tennis Center.

Klaus Schmitt has been playing tennis with Haeckel since the early 1960s. He shares Haeckel’s views on the role of tennis in his own life.

“Being physically active improves the quality of everything in my life,” he said.

Schmitt, a professor in mathematics, loves to travel but there is one catch: “I will travel everywhere as long as I can take my tennis racket with me,” Schmitt said with a smile.

Both men reflect on memories of playing on the old campus courts where the new biology building sits today.

“We used to play daily with our shirts off at high noon,” Haeckel recalled with a gleam in his eye.

Haeckel and Schmitt appear to be the exception and not the rule when it comes to older adults and exercise. Inactivity in the older adult population is a major problem today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the loss of strength and stamina attributed to aging is in part caused by reduced physical activity. By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity whatsoever.

Experts claim physical activity over the course of one’s life is of most benefit to an individual but it is never too late to start. Janet Shaw said physical activity is very important right now because there are lots of baby boomers in their early 60s who are still functional.

“Now is the time to capitalize on it and ask: How do I get into a routine of really helpful physical activity that I can continue as I get older?” Shaw said.

It can be difficult for older adults to begin exercise programs, especially when they haven’t been active for much of their lives. Recommendations can be made but the decision ultimately lies with the individual involved. Shaw emphasized the importance of enlisting help from a professional or a physically active friend for those people foreign to exercise.

“You have got to get people into it very slowly in a way that is very safe to them,” she said.

A major problem among the aging community is the increase in the number of fatalities due to falls. According to the CDC, in 2005, a total of 15,800 people aged 65 years and older died from injuries related to falls. An additional 1.8 million were treated in emergency departments for nonfatal injuries from falls.

According to the CDC, physical activity can be a good preventative measure to help limit the number of falls in older adults. Shaw recommends activities good for muscle strength and power in relation to helping balance.

“Catching oneself really requires that people be able to move quickly, and have a certain amount of strength to be able to hold up their own body weight,” Shaw said.

Haeckel and Schmitt are determined to postpone the aging process. “If I go two days without exercise I feel sluggish,” Haeckel said. “I enjoy having a good quality of life. I need one if I want to keep up with the grandkids,” he added.

The women they are playing tennis with find it funny Haeckel and Schmitt are being interviewed for an aging article. “You’re interviewing these two young guys?” they ask. Maybe they have a point. After all, you are only as old as you feel.

The key to successful aging

by Leigh Walsh

Researchers say the social support network surrounding an older adult is a great predictor of their health status.

For many people, aging is seen as something that needs to be defeated. It is the enemy, and billions of dollars each year are spent on preventative measures to avoid it.

It may be hard to believe but the answers to successful aging may not lie in a bottle of anti-aging cream or in the hands of a plastic surgeon.

Many experts believe a simple companion you can confide in is a vital aspect of aging happily. Scott Wright, professor and director of gerontology at the University of Utah, echoes this opinion. “Social connections and the quality of relationships you can depend on are a key to aging,” Wright said.

Being physically active over the course of your life can also slow down the aging process. Wright said activities such as yoga and tai chi are very important for balance and coordination. Being physically active is a great preventative measure for certain illnesses and injuries.

Joseph Hansen, a 72-year-old retired accountant, credits his wife and his love of tennis for keeping him young.

“They both keep me on my toes,” said Hansen with a cheeky grin. “I found my soul-mate over 40 years ago and I am still as happy today as the day I met her.”

A recent study at the University of Rochester found that 7.6 million older adults feel the need for more social support in America. On hearing this statistic, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, Hansen shook his head and sighed. He believes he is fortunate not to be one of these and he claims he would be lost without the support of those around him.

The researchers also examined the correlation between social support and health status in older adults. Their conclusion emphasized social support itself is an important feature of quality of life, and there is a need for social intervention among both healthy and ill older adult populations. Dependable relationships can make all the difference.

The ability to be independent is a value many Americans hold in very high regard. A common fear among the aging community is how their physical and mental well-being will change as they get older.

“I like to live in the present and not worry about the future,” Hansen said. “All I can do now is enjoy being healthy and being surrounded by fantastic support from family and friends. Who knows what can happen tomorrow?”

Why do almost 7.6 million older Americans feel they are lacking in social support? Is it our culture, or does the problem stem from multiple factors? Wright talked about areas of the world known as Blue Zones, where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives.

Loma Linda, Calif., Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan, are three of a handful of places that are considered Blue Zones. Researchers have not found one sole reason for the longevity of life in these regions of the world, but they have made some general observations.

The Blue Zones/AARP Vitality Project is sponsored by United Health Foundation. According to the Web site, there are six common factors among these places: no smoking, a plant-based diet, constant moderate physical activity, social engagement, legumes and at the top of their list: family. Blue Zone researchers claim family and a good social circle are great predictors of a healthy life.

Wright said 35,000 people reach the age of 65 every month in America and Utah has the fifth-largest population of elderly people. This “age tsunami” is causing major financial headaches for the government, which makes healthy aging as important now as it has ever been.

In the current economic climate, the generation of baby boomers is placing an extreme strain on Medicare and Social Security. If people are living a healthy lifestyle illness and injuries will be reduced, which will relieve the strain on government finances. The Social Security Administration recently stated that monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits for more than 57 million Americans will not automatically increase in 2010. This will be the first year without an automatic Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) since they went into effect in 1975.

This nation is getting older and statistics show the aging population will continue to rise. Researchers at the University of Richmond stated, “Our findings outline the benefits of future efforts to reduce social isolation and improve social health among this large and fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.” The elderly community should not become society’s forgotten population.