published Friday, September 27th, 2013

Refusing to quit: Physical activity doesn't have to slow down as age goes up

Tommy Gates, 55, plays a strong game of pickleball on Wednesday afternoons at the Colville Street Recreation Center. Gates plays the sport from his wheelchair.
Tommy Gates, 55, plays a strong game of pickleball on Wednesday afternoons at the Colville Street Recreation Center. Gates plays the sport from his wheelchair.
Photo by Tim Barber.
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    Hamilton County Sessions Court Judge Clarence Shattuck, 78, left, takes a shot over Henry Jacks during practice at the Colville Street Recreation Center.
    Photo by Tim Barber.
    enlarge photo

Clarence Shattuck is as serious about basketball today as he was back in the early 1950s when he played on the varsity team at Soddy-Daisy High School.

And he's just as competitive.

Shattuck, a Hamilton County Sessions Court judge, is 78. He now plays on a championship Senior Olympics basketball team, the Bombers, and travels across the country competing in tournaments. He sinks a three-pointer nearly every time he's on the court and says it's something he'll do as long as his body allows.

"I don't have any plans of slowing down," Shattuck says. "I enjoy it. I love the competition. I love the camaraderie."

Being physically active as we age is a good thing, says local physician Gary Gesualdi. Not only does it reduce the risk of heart attacks, stroke and high blood pressure, keeping weight down helps prevents diabetes and osteoporosis, he says.

"As a physician, I find that many seniors are aware of the benefits of an active lifestyle and being physically fit," he says. "Unfortunately, I find many senior patients are reluctant to embark on a more active lifestyle because of misconceptions of the time commitment needed.

"It's exciting to note that research studies repeatedly highlight the increase in mental well-being and memory in seniors who adopt a routine for weekly exercise."

Proving that age doesn't have to be a negative factor when it comes to keeping active, senior athletes were worldwide news recently when 64-year-old Diana Nyad made her record-breaking, 53-hour swim from Havana, Cuba, to Key West, Fla. The 110-mile swim was a lifelong ambition of Nyad's; her first attempt was at age 30 and it took until her fifth try to finish.

After the completion of her swim, Nyad had three messages to share.

"One is: We should never, ever give up. Two is: You're never too old to chase your dream. Three is: It looks like a solitary sport, but it is a team," Nyad said in USA Today.

For most seniors, there's no need to tackle a swim through shark- and jellyfish-invested ocean waters to be physically active; in fact, there's no need to go overboard at all, says Gesualdi. Long-distance swims and 27-mile marathons are not necessary to get benefits.

Many seniors are not aware that as little as a 20-30 minute walk in your neighborhood several times a week can give you many of the benefits," he says.

"Personally, I enjoy light weight training at the YMCA, and my wife and I are avid cyclists and ride our bikes several days a week," he says. "Chattanooga offers great weather and many opportunities and places to enjoy an active outdoor lifestyle.

"Just remember, you don't have to be one of those 'nuts' running in the rain to enjoy all the physical and mental benefits of weekly exercise. Wait for the sunshine and enjoy a walk in your neighborhood, or over Walnut Street Bridge or around Coolidge Park or along the Riverwalk."

According to the National Institutes of Health, older adults need to be physically active.

"Older adults who do any amount of physical activity gain some health benefits," the NIH notes on its website. "If inactive, older adults should gradually increase their activity levels and avoid vigorous activity at first."

Among its guidelines for those over 65, the NIH includes such activities as walking and balance exercises, and it says that almost any level of physical exertion helps.

"If you can't do 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) of activity each week, be as physically active as your abilities and condition allow," the NIH says.

Inactivity has never been an option for Barbara Cornwell.

Cornwell, who'll turn 80 in December, is physically active six days a week. She rests on Sunday because "that's what the Lord says do," she says.

Cornwell, who has won gold medals at the Senior Olympics in badminton and pickleball (sort of a combination of badminton, tennis and ping pong), spends many hours each week playing the sports at the Colville Street Recreation Center, a city-owned facility in North Chattanooga.

"It keeps you healthy," says a vivacious Cornwell. "Playing sports keeps me active, especially when I play against people younger than I am, which is most of the time."

But being physically active is nothing new to Cornwell.

"I'm from a family of eight," she says, and everyone in her family played sports. Her family was named the "St. Elmo Sports Family of the Year" in the 1950s.

"My sister and I worked at Combustion (a former manufacturing plant in Chattanooga) when we were younger and we played on the company softball team. I've always said that I got hired because I could hit home runs."

Having retired several years ago from Morgan Stanley financial services, Cornwell says working out or playing sports with others is rewarding mentally as well as physically.

"It's not just a workout you get when you play, it's also getting involved with people," she says. "The contact helps keep you healthy, too. You find that you care about other people, and it's fun to get to know them."

The mother of three and grandmother of two says her active athletic life results in her rarely being home.

"I'm busy and I plan to stay that way," she says.

Local attorney John Cavett, 59, says he's been dedicated to working out for the last 30 years.

"I started as a runner and have completed two marathons," he says. "I then started cycling and swimming and did triathlons for a while. Eventually, I had injuries that keep me from running at all and, frankly, I got a little lazy with the swimming. I now cycle and love it. I have done a number of 'centuries' (100-mile rides)."

But he acknowledges that keeping fit is not just for fun; his family history practically demands it.

"Every Cavett male I know of, except for one who died in World War II, died of a heart attack," he says. "My father had his first one at age 52 or so and died of one 11 years ago. That is the primary reason I work out.

"I am not on blood pressure medicine and the doctor at my last checkup said I was a 'poster child for health for my age.' I do take cholesterol meds but that appears to have a big genetic component and my doc says there is little I can do about it.

"So I started working out and continue for my health generally and my heart health specifically."

Tommy Gates has no plans to slow down when it comes to sports. The 55-year-old retired tailor, who uses a wheelchair for mobility as a result of post-polio syndrome, is a competitive pickleball and table tennis player. He also plays against able-bodied opponents.

"It is a challenge but one I welcome," he admits. "I haven't played against anyone else in a wheelchair, so it makes me more competitive playing against able-bodied athletes.

"I'm pretty good at it," he says. "I hold my own."

Because he had polio as a child, Gates says walking, despite wearing braces or using crutches, kept him physically active during his youth and early-adult years.

"Exercise is good and let's you get more out of life," he says. "I do have weak spots because of the polio, but I've gained a lot of strength playing sports. I play through the pain and enjoy it."

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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