If you see Powell Palmerston bicycling around Medford, putting on 25 miles a day, you'd be amazed to know how old he is.
The 91-year-old Palmerston is one of a growing group of the very old — call them super-seniors — who keep fit into their 80s, 90s, even past the century mark.
"My secret?" Palmerston laughs. "A lot of vegetables and fruit. I gave up all indulgences, never drink, haven't had a cigarette since 1970."
His son, Collin Palmerston, adds, "His real secret is that he just kept bicycling, year after year and never gave it up," even after heart surgery a decade ago.
With better diet, exercise and medical care, more people are living into their 90s and beyond — and that, say the experts, needs to be a time of life when fitness is kept in the forefront.
As long as you start slow and build gradually, keeping in shape is not dangerous for people of advanced age, says gerontologist Sharon Johnson of Oregon State University. "The danger is not being physically active. We need it, even if we're just doing ankle circles. We need to improve aerobic capacity, strength and flexibility."
Typical of the new breed of super seniors who take their fitness seriously is Marceil Taylor, 93, of Medford, who works out every weekday at Baxter Fitness Solutions. She also keeps her attitude in shape and that, says Taylor, is the real key to surviving and thriving when the rest of the flock has gone to pasture.
"I have a happy and wholesome life, and I work out on a half-dozen machines and follow the instructions on the TV," says Taylor, who volunteers three days a week at Rogue Valley Medical Center, comforting families who have someone in surgery.
"How I got to this age is that I believe we are what we think, and if we think all the time about being sick, we're sick. It's all about the positive," she says.
Attitude is "absolutely critical" in avoiding the depression so common in advanced age, as one loses friends and family. And fitness is important in avoiding falls, another common pitfall that can lead to immobility and decline, says Bill Macy of Avamere Health and Fitness Club in Medford.
The club caters to people over 40, not just because of their special needs and pace, but because older people want to work out around other older people — and the socialization is a huge and welcome part of the experience, says Macy.
"That's what keeps them coming back, the environment with peers," Macy notes. "It's not the athletic goals. They want to improve their health and functionality, their endurance and posture — and to get integrated into a social environment, so they head off the isolation that's common with that age."
Meredith Quenon, 89, who daily works out with weights and a half-dozen of Macy's machines, says her key to fitness in advanced years is: do a few yoga moves before she gets out of bed, eat right — a lot of vegetables, fruits and fish — exercise and "keep moving, keep doing things. Don't be a couch potato."
Carol Lee Rogers, who leads senior workout classes in Ashland and Medford, says the trick for fitness in very old age is the same as for the youthful — eat well, exercise, read, have friends, connect with people, keep active and fit, listen to music, be happy and get fresh air.
A spry 86, psychologist Johanna Fisher of Ashland has lectured on the brain at Southern Oregon University's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. She says a useful advanced age comes from a combination of staying intellectually busy and doing age-appropriate workouts, such as her daily stretch classes and half-mile walks.
Also important to fitness in advanced age, adds Fisher, is understanding that the mind is going to work differently than it used to, so don't get frustrated or anxious about it — just learn its new habits and demands.
"You'll find the memory getting more difficult. Memories are in the parietal lobe, and it's like a box. After that many years, the box gets full, and the neurons have to search back and forth to find something. Let it happen," Fisher notes. "Don't get angry and depressed, or it will just be more difficult."
"Positive attitude is a lot," says Andy Baxter of Baxter Fitness Solutions for 50 and Beyond in Medford. "Having structure in your life, personal relationships, work world and in your workouts is important, too. Without that, it's hard to be successful. Genuinely happy, satisfied, well-rounded folks are not too extreme in any area."
It used to be thought that the brain had a fixed number of cells and that, in advanced age, the mind deteriorated. Recent studies confirm "neurogenesis," a process in which the brain grows new cells at any age. The primary factor in that process is physical exercise.
"Exercise is emerging as the primary treatment for Alzheimer's," says Baxter, who gives attention in each workout to "brain aerobics" — movements that coordinate body and mind interaction.
Oddly, the elderly may not listen to advice from friends and the media about workouts, but when they get it from their doctor, they obey. Perhaps the biggest motivator, says Macy, is not to improve health for one's own sake, but for the ability to be active with your children and grandchildren.
"The very old hear that," says Macy. "If you can't think of fitness for yourself, think of it for others."