The scene is an indoor pool. The time is late morning, but if you ask these splashing, laughing, frolicking water babies, time is on their side.
"The pool just takes all the aches away," said Toni Cavnaugh, 69, of Kenmore. "I don't even think I could do jumping jacks as a kid, but in the water, I'm good. Don't you think?"
Water Exercise for Arthritics, taught in the Tonawanda Aquatic and Fitness Center, is a popular exercise class, one of many offered throughout Western New York that caters to the specialized needs of men and women aged 50 and over.
Surveys show that only 30 percent of Americans aged 50 to 64 exercise regularly, while 32 percent of adults 65 and older follow a regular plan of exercise. There is no secret that older adults have physical and sometimes psychological barriers to exercise. Fear of injury oftentimes outweighs the desire to exercise.
Take Cavnaugh, for example, one of 20 older adults standing in the pool's shallow end holding what appears to be a giant yellow rubber squiggly contraption more commonly known as a noodle. The three-foot noodle, as explanation, offers a low-impact resistance exercise that targets various muscle groups - including the abdominals and biceps - when used as instructed.
"I used to do aerobics," Cavnaugh confided, after using her noodle. "I'm coming home limping and thinking this is crazy. In the water, I can do anything."
Almost anything. Even water babies have their limits.
Studies have found that violent physical exertion is no more useful to gaining and maintaining fitness than is moderate exercise. Violent physical exercise, in addition, can result in an increased risk of injury or heart attack for those who are not in prime physical condition. The key is to start off slow and go slow.
"I started because of arthritis," said Santina Algera, 72, of Kenmore, as she sat pool side in a black swimsuit and squidgy shoes. "I'm afraid of the water, and this conquered my fear."
Group exercise not only helps conquer anxiety, it is a fun and meaningful way of group interaction. Emotional well-being is critical for a healthy lifestyle, with many seniors dealing with a variety of emotional issues, such as widowhood, family challenges and chronic illness.
"We have made friends. We exchange ideas, and have lunch once a month," said Algera. "It's become a very important part of my life. We don't sit still."
"It's a bond," Cavnaugh added. "If someone doesn't come for a while, we worry."
Maureen O'Donnell is a certified aquatic instructor with the Western New York Arthritis Foundation. She is key to the comraderie shared by her students in the water.
"This has nothing to do with swimming," O'Donnell explained. "The whole idea is that people with arthritis have difficulty moving without pain. The idea is to keep them moving."
The aquatic exercise, designed by the arthritis foundation, provides an aerobic level of exercise for 30 minutes. The exercise program not only helps those who suffer from arthritis, but also is beneficial for older adults heading toward knee or hip replacement who need to strengthen supporting muscles.
"You can't store fitness," explains aquatic instructor Sheila Csiceri. "You can't tuck it away in the fall and bring it out again in the spring and expect to maintain your level of fitness. You need to keep yourself active especially for those who are growing older. You want to keep those bones strong and not brittle."
With exercise, bones rebuild and repair themselves as they should. Without exercise, they tend to become thin and porous, a condition known as osteoporosis. Lack of exercise displaces muscle, replacing it with fat and leading to atrophy and weight gain. Added weight puts added stress on heart and lungs, not to mention the weight-bearing joints of the knees, hips, ankles and feet.
At age 69, Ida Shapiro conducts a weight control program focusing on lifestyle changes and positive thinking. Ideal Weight, a six-week course, is offered through the community education programs at Kenmore West High School in Kenmore and Mill Middle School in Williamsville, and at the Zion United Church of Christ in the Town of Tonawanda.
"People join for vanity and appearance," Shapiro maintains, "but when they reach that certain age, health concerns including cardiac problems, high blood pressure and diabetes arise. When the weight goes up, very often diabetes flares up."
Nutritional analysis is very important for those who are watching their weight, according to Shapiro. "I find many people are not aware of what a fat gram is," Shapiro said. "They need to know how to eat in restaurants."
Perhaps more importantly, people need to know how to exercise. Walking and other aerobic exercises done at a pace which accelerates breathing and works up a mild sweat for a half-hour to one hour three days a week will keep heart, lungs and vascular system in good working order and strenghthen bones and muscles.
Exercise intensity for aerobic conditioning is measured by heart rate. A good activity level is 70 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is determined by subtracting your age from 220. For example, the recommended exercise heart rate for a 60-year-old person is 112 beats per minute.
Over at the Hilbert College gymnasium in Hamburg, the hearts are thumping almost as strong as the basketballs being bounced against hardwood during a pick-up game waged by a group of 60- and 70-somethings, who informally meet twice each week to shoot hoops.
"We beat each other up regularly," said Ted Kurtz, 69, who describes the three-on-three half-court contest as a finesse game. "We're prudent. We're not diving for the ball anymore. This is therapeutic mentally and physically, and it's a support group."
Most of the men range in age from 62 to 76, according to Kurtz, adding that many of the participants played basketball in the past.
"You just keep going and going until someone comes over and suggests golf," Kurtz said. "We are very tolerant, with a huge range of skill levels."
On this Monday the court is not filled with jesters. The sweating men are prone to swish shots and Ace-bandaged knees. Behind-the-back passes, hook shots and offensive rebounds are mainstays. An observer would not find it difficult to call these guys good.
At age 71, Charles Binaxes shoots with accuracy. The former Champlain College center, who "used to stand 6 feet 4," is often double-teamed. Michael Stempkowski, 69, holds the foul shot record for Memorial Auditorium, hitting 19 of 23 on Jan. 25, 1958, when he played as a guard for Erie County Technical Institute. It is a record that will never be broken.
Gene Mruk, 73, used to play in the industrial league during World War II.
"After not playing basketball for 37 years, it took me about five months to get back," Mruk said. "I first worked on endurance, and then rebounding, and then of course the scoring comes later."
Like most of the men who take to the court, EKGs and stress tests were medically advised prerequisites.
"It lowered my blood pressure, and improved me physically, mentally, and sexually. It makes me feel younger," Mruk said.
For these older adults, the days on the court translate into gold-medal winning performances at the Senior Olympics competitions throughout the Northeast, including one recent first-place finish in New Hampshire.
It has also fueled the first Senior Basketball Tournament sponsored by the Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. The event will take place at 10 a.m. Oct. 7 with four age groups: 55-plus, 60-plus, 65-plus and 70-plus.
"We don't make fun of anyone," Kurtz said. "We commend them. We're just a bunch of kids the way we approach this. The last thing we want is to end our career on crutches. It's a testimonial to: "You're never really over the hill.'"
Another physical pursuit that manages to thwart that over-the-hill feeling is tai chi, the martial arts form that enhances balance and body awareness through slow, graceful and precise body movement, according to the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
The exercise - offered through classes at many senior centers throughout Western New York - can significantly cut the risk of falls among older people and may be beneficial in maintaining gains made by people age 70 and older who undergo other types of balance and strength training.
Each year, as estimated by the National Institute on Aging, falls by older people in this country are responsible for medical costs of more than $12 billion, and the costs due to physical frailty are much higher. But take heart, a study conducted by the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta found that older people taking part in a 15-week tai chi program reduced their risk of falling by 47.5 percent.
A second study, by the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, found that several interventions to improve balance and strength among older people were effective. These improvements, particularly in strength, were preserved over a six-month period while participants did tai chi exercises.
Lawrence and Gloria Gannon of Williamsville are enrolled in the intermediate tai chi program offered through the Town of Amherst Department of Senior Services.
"I thought it would help me with balance, and to make me think," said Mrs. Gannon, 76. "You've got 108 moves, and to do the moves all in order, it makes you think."
At 81, Gannon, admits that some parts of tai chi "I can't do like the younger 70-year-olds, but it's a nice exercise that a couple can participate in together. We finish tai chi and then go out to lunch."
Alice Rogers, meanwhile, must watch the type of exercise she performs due to a spinal fusion.
"I can't really bend the way I am supposed to, said the 76-year-old woman. "Tai chi is not an exercise that tires you out. You're supposed to be quiet, but our class is never quiet.
"When you have the onset of arthritis like I did, and you start stiffening up like I did, tai chi gets you limber and your joints cooperate. You are able to move about in a better way," Rogers continued.
"It's a good exercise no matter what your age."