By Ana Veciana-Suarez
MIAMI — The sky is the color of freshly brewed coffee when Liliana Retelny slips her 27-foot shell into the still waters of Miami Beach’s Indian Creek and begins her daily three-hour routine. She rows. She rows as the rising sun stains the clouds, as students practice with their crew teams, as the sounds of a waking city begin to fill the air.
Retelny, 47, is practicing to compete against rowers two decades her junior. The Aventura, Fla., psychotherapist already has won two silver medals in the Central American Games, placed 20th in World Cup competition and second in her division in Israel’s Maccabiah Games. All this in a sport she took up only four years ago, when her daughter was rowing for her high school team.
“I love it,” said Retelny, who competes under her maiden name, Boruchowicz. “For me this is not work. It is not a matter of discipline. When I’m on the water, I’m the happiest. I feel alive and young.”
The Costa Rica native is part of a growing cadre of baby boomers who seek the proverbial fountain of youth in swimming pools, on running tracks and in the gym. Many have taken up sports — even extreme sports — in mid-life, pursuing fitness not only to look good but to feel good.
“Boomers have always appreciated being physically fit, and they’re not about to let go of that active lifestyle,” says Kara Thompson, spokeswoman for the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association (IHRSA). “They want to stay healthy. They exercise because it makes them feel better.”
Jim Loretta, 63, had always run to keep in shape. It was a form of exercise he could do around his Kendall, Fla., neighborhood or on a hotel-gym treadmill when he traveled for his firm, Loretta Marketing Group. Then, about 20 years ago, he got to talking to two marathoners. “It sounded like something I wanted to do,” he says.
When he finished his first half-marathon in November 1992, his wife asked, “Have you had enough?”
He was just getting started. By January 1994, he had run four marathons at progressively faster clips. To train, he was running 40 to 60 miles a week. Bitten by the competitive bug, he moved on to triathlons — swimming-cycling-running competitions — and then to the Ironman, a grueling endurance event that combines a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
Training means discipline and sacrifice — up at 4:15 every morning to run, swim or bike. Weekends are more intense: a 12-mile run on Saturdays and a 60-mile bike ride on Sundays.
By 2008, with four Ironman competitions to his credit, “I was in phenomenal shape,” he says. “I felt really good.”
While Loretta’s training regimen is uncommon, his commitment to fitness is not. His generation, he says, “wants to keep in shape. They know exercise is good for them.”
There are no statistics on the number of boomers who exercise on a regular basis, but experts say they probably are more physically active — at least recreationally — than past generations at middle-age.
Industry surveys find that boomers are the fastest-growing segment of the health-club population, with those 50 and older accounting for 23 percent of members, says IHRSA’s Thompson, whose association represents many of the country’s 30,000 gyms.
“Boomers are much more into exercise than their parents were and even more than their children are,” says Santiago Matute, a certified professional trainer who works at three Miami-Dade gyms. “And they’re very knowledgeable about their bodies and nutrition. In general, they’re taking better care of themselves.”
Renee Grant, 53, took up running 10 years ago, after a divorce. She worked up to a mile on a neighborhood track, then joined a runners group in Hollywood and built up to five miles.
“At first it was a mental escape for me,” says the Cooper City, Fla., resident. “It made me feel so good to be out. It was quite an adrenaline rush.”
A year later, she ran her first 5K in Weston, Fla., finishing in the middle of the pack. She completed her first half marathon in 2003 and her first full marathon in 2004. Since then she has run two a year as well as shorter races about once a month. In last month’s Boston Marathon, she ran 3:40:41, beating her previous time by five minutes.
“It’s like an addiction,” Grant says. “I have to do it. If I don’t run, I become grouchy and irritable.”
Studies show that boomers exercise differently — and more consistently — than their younger counterparts, with 55- to 64-year-olds showing up at the gym an average of 112 days a year.
“They lead the pack,” says IHRSA’s Thompson. At Anytime Fitness in Hollywood, Fla., owner Guy del Borrello, calls his boomer clients “more dedicated and serious. They give more importance to health.”
Boomer exercise favorites include treadmill and elliptical machines, yoga, Pilates and weight training. Matute has seen more women adding strength training to their aerobic workouts and men incorporating cardiovascular exercises into their free-weight routines.
Boomers are also smart about cross-training — that is, doing more than one kind of exercise to work out different muscles. In addition to rowing, Retelny does step aerobics, spinning and strength training at the gym.
Loretta, who hopes to eventually qualify for the world-famous Ironman in Kona, Hawaii, practices yoga. He also prays and meditates while running.
“You have to be realistic in your expectations and accept the fact that your body is getting older,” he says. “But I’m fine with that.”
Though they’re taking better care of themselves, older exercise enthusiasts tend to suffer more wear-and-tear injuries simply because “we are outliving the warranty on our frame,” says orthopedic surgeon Nicholas DiNubile, author of “FrameWork: Your 7 Step Program for Health Muscles, Bones and Joints” (Rodale, $18.95).
“In just over 100 years, we’ve almost doubled our life span, but evolution hasn’t caught up to that.”
DiNubile is credited with coining the term “boomeritis” for the distinct aches and pains he sees among middle-age patients. These include tendonitis (inflammation of tendons) and bursitis (inflammation of the bursa that lies between tendon and skin), as well as arthritic knees and lower back pain caused by degenerating disks.
“After a certain age, you develop vulnerabilities,” DiNubile says. “It happens to all tissues. It’s like getting a wrinkle, pretty inevitable.”
Robert Irwin, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, says many of the injuries he sees are due to overzealous exercising.
“People want to move up too soon too fast,” he says.
Yet Irwin is quick to tell his fellow boomers that the benefits of consistent and appropriate exercise far outweigh the potential for injury.
“Sometime in middle age, you have this epiphany: I have kids and I want to be healthy for my kids,” he says.
Two passions unite them — cycling and Cuban coffee. Hence, their name: Team Colada.
Comprised of about 25 baby-boomer professionals, most of them Cuban-American, Team Colada rides along some of the most picturesque streets in South Florida, through Coral Gables, around Coconut Grove and onto Key Biscayne. Depending upon where a cyclist joins up along the route, he can put in 30 miles on weekday mornings and 50 on the weekend.
The reward? Coffee and company.
“Sometimes I think we spend more time B.S.ing and drinking coffee than we do riding,” jokes Carlos I. Fernandez, 45, chief operations officer and chief financial officer of Victus, a nutrition and medical products company.
But don’t be fooled by the easy camaraderie. These guys are fitness freaks. They cross train — running, swimming, weight training and working their core muscles in Pilate classes. Some didn’t take up cycling until middle-age but now plan trips and work schedules around team rides.
Eugenio Arango, 50, is one of them. A wealth manager for Merrill Lynch, he joined Team Colada in 2001.
“I didn’t know what I was doing” he says. “I just went out and bought a bike and found out later I had gotten the wrong kind for what I needed.”
But Arango has stuck to his five-rides-a-week schedule and has cycled around Spain on vacation. “It beats taking a pill or having surgery.”
Team Colada members love the sport, but they also cycle for its health benefits. “Most of us have highly stressful jobs,” says Fernandez, “and this really works on relaxing us.”
The team sprang from the merger of two workout groups. One of the founders, Enrique Lopez, now 62, cycled with friends. Another group, led by Fernandez and Eddie and Mike Viadero, rode together to Key Biscayne every Saturday as part of their cross-training program. In 1996, the two groups agreed to meet at Coco Plum Circle each weekend morning at 7:30.
A year later, they added a Wednesday ride to Vizcaya Museum. Word spread and more men joined. Most were members of Epiphany Catholic Church and many had attended the same high schools, Belen and Columbus.
Eventually, someone suggested uniforms, which led to brainstorming for a team name. “Colada just seemed natural,” Arango says.
Team members take weekend trips to Singer Island in Palm Beach County, riding 60 to 70 miles early, then rendezvousing with families for a day at the beach. They go to birthday parties for each other’s children and raise money for favorite charities.
“Three years ago when my father died, a quarter of the people in the funeral home were from Team Colada,” Fernandez says.
They have formed business ties, too. A Team Colada member was the contractor on Arango’s kitchen remodeling, another is his accountant and a third insured his home.
“But we have one fast rule,” Arango adds. “No talking business when we’re all together. It’s about fun.”
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTED
• Get a physical, or at the very least, consult your physician before starting an exercise routine.
• Consider hiring a trainer who will teach you how to use weights or machines at the gym and prepare an individual fitness plan for your level.
• Warm up and cool down. Do stretches to keep your body limber.
• Listen to your body. If a pain persists, see your doctor. Minor injuries left untended turn into major problems.
• Work around your physical problems. If you have a joint or bone issue, for instance, do low impact aerobics and lighter weights with more repetition.
• Include cross-training for true fitness, combining cardiovascular exercise with strength training, core buildup and stretching.
• Don’t overdo it. Build up strength and stamina slowly. Experts recommend the 10 percent rule — increase your activity level by no more than 10 percent every week to avoid injuries.
• Fuel your body. Eat healthfully and ask your doctor about the advisability of vitamins and calcium supplements.
• Be realistic. You’re not going to run as fast or lift as much as when you were in your prime.
• Pick an activity you like and make it part of your routine so that if you skip a day, you’ll truly miss it.
• Find a buddy to exercise with; it will help you stick to a routine.
Sources: Nicholas DiNubile, orthopedic surgeon, and Robert W. Irwin, assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.