A 21-year military career impressed upon Frank Sobotka the importance of daily exercise — be it running, bicycling, weight-lifting or racquetball — that continued into his 60s.
So Sobotka, 66, was shocked that his rigorous regimen of cardiovascular conditioning didn't safeguard him against an arterial blockage. A relatively high level of physical fitness did help the Ashland resident return to the gym just two weeks after surgery. Two years later, Sobotka is more convinced than ever that exercise is the best prescription for health and aging well.
"That is a magic pill, though," he says.
It's a sentiment Sobotka shares with post-rehab conditioning specialist Andy Baxter, who presented a May lecture titled "Exercise: The Magic Pill?" to a crowd of 140 seniors at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center. Mounting numerous endorsements of regular exercise, combined with scientific evidence of its benefits, Baxter reassured the group during his hour-long program that they don't have to work as hard as they think they do to reap the rewards of exercise.
"You don't have to kill yourself working out," Baxter says.
Just 14 total minutes of cycling performed over a period of two weeks, for example, increased insulin efficiency in diabetics by 23 percent, Baxter says, citing a study by Scotland's University of Edinburgh.
"It certainly combats many of the arguments that 'I don't have time for exercise,' " Baxter says.
Health conditions linked to inactivity cost Americans $76 billion in 2000, Baxter says. By 2006, Americans spent $208 billion on prescription drugs used outside a hospital setting, including $38 billion on metabolic-enhancing formulas and $33 billion on drugs to support the cardiovascular system, he says, referring to data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. However, scientists have yet to invent a pill that prevents diabetes — a metabolic disorder of epidemic proportions — or cardiovascular disease, he adds.
"Man, we spent a lot of money on that pill that doesn't exist," Baxter says.
By contrast, Baxter says, scientific research has proven that exercise prevents and even treats an array of aging adults' common health complaints, including arthritis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, osteoporosis and Parkinson's disease, not to mention diabetes and heart disease.
"We could sum this whole talk up and go, 'Exercise is good; go have a cookie.' "
But Baxter, who owns Baxter Fitness Solutions for 50 and Beyond, cautions seniors against one-size-fits-all approaches to exercise or embarking on a new program without a professional's help.
"Because you see equipment in a gym does not mean that that's an appropriate piece of equipment for you," he says.
Members of his Medford and Ashland gyms typically don't exercise a single joint at a time, which can lead to injuries from overuse, Baxter says. His program emphasizes quality of work over quantity, Baxter adds, and makes no distinction between 18-year-old muscles and 80-year-old muscles when it comes to a person's performance of everyday movements.
"There's no reason why the 95-year-old can't train for optimal strength," Baxter says.
It's a goal of Lee Rogers, an Ashland resident who attended Baxter's lecture hoping to learn tips for infusing his exercise routine with variety.
"I've done a lot more workouts than the average person," Rogers says. "I've played a lot more sports than the average person.
But at 64, Rogers can't even begin to do a pull-up. Nagging joint injuries also keep him from playing softball and tennis. Yet he's logging hours at the Ashland YMCA in preparation for a 45-mile backpacking trip.
"My big thing is maintaining strength, endurance," Rogers says.
That's because Rogers, Sobotka and other active seniors know that enjoying the activities of youth are better than any magic pill.