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Fitness Over 50: How Our Region's Older Adults Are Staying In Shape


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Most people think grandmothers spin yarn, not bikes. But high-speed indoor cycling is Denise Leary and Susan Zacharkiw’s favorite new fitness regimen. “I keep active because I want to be strong in body, mind and spirit,” says 61-year-old Zacharkiw of Pocopson Township.

Though she has chronic pain in her knee, Zacharkiw spins several times a week at CycleBar in West Chester.

“It hasn’t caused any additional knee pain or back pain,” she says. “I actually think my knee feels better now that I’m cycling.”

Leary feels the same way about spinning—and her knees. Decades of skiing, racquetball and yard work sent her to orthopedic specialists for arthroscopic procedures. “I thought spinning would be agony on my knees, but that’s not the case,” says the 70-year-old Aston resident, who goes to CycleBar at least twice a week. “On older people, everything that can ache usually does. But I’ve learned that the more active you are, the better you feel.”

Zacharkiw and Leary spin at that CycleBar because it’s close to their homes. It also helps that their daughters work there. Both were nudged into the studio by their kids, but they needed only one class to get hooked. “We may not be the fastest, but we love it,” Leary says.

Wynnewood’s Lynn Arnold received similar encouragement from her boxing son, a specialist in Haganah, a variation of the Israeli martial art Krav Maga. When Arnold started, she was 51 and out of shape.

In her younger years, she’d been quite active, running 10 miles a day. But with her last pregnancy, she’d gained 50 pounds—and she never lost them. “I thought I was on my way to having a heart attack,” says Arnold. “I didn’t want to die young.”

Despite her motivation, Arnold’s first few workouts were grueling. She could barely do one burpee, and her punching strength was negligible. But she refused to quit. “If you don’t show up, nothing changes,” Arnold says. “So I didn’t give myself the option of quitting.”

Now 58, Arnold boxes and does Haganah at PurEnergy Studio in Paoli several times a week. She’s lost almost 30 pounds and gained muscle mass.

“The more muscle you build, the more fat you burn,” she says. “As time went on, my core strength got stronger and my back pain disappeared.”

Related: Aquatics: The Ageless Fitness

Arnold isn’t the only over-50 boxer. Leary attends weekly Turbo Kick and boxing classes at JoanieFit in Wilmington, Del. “Joanie is one of the most motivating women I know,” Leary attests. “And she has a kick-ass class.”

Leary finds fitness inspiration in various ways. She does female-only wellness retreats and she hikes in Ridley State Creek State Park with a women’s group. She isn’t opposed to exercising with men—CycleBar spin sessions are co-ed. But she does find a special camaraderie with women.

“Maybe it’s because we motivate one another differently than men do,” Leary says. “It’s not about competing. It’s about completing the workout and taking pride in that.”

Zacharkiw has a different philosophy. A basketball player since her high school years, she remains competitive. A member of Kennett Area YMCA, she lifts free weights, uses elliptical machines and takes group fitness classes. Zacharkiw keeps track of her progress, but she’s the only one who knows her numbers. It’s the same at CycleBar. “There’s a leader board, but no one pays attention to what you’re doing,” says Zacharkiw. “I try to do a little better each week. Although some days it’s enough that I show up and finish the class.”

Finding time for fitness is a challenge for all three women. Now that their own children are grown, they are less tied up. But they’re still working and have family responsibilities. “At first, it felt a little selfish to carve out time or exercise,” Arnold says. “Then I realized that it’s really about my health and staying active so I can live my fullest life.”

The women encourage other people over 50 to try new exercise classes.

“None of us are the stereotypical super-fit 20-something poster girls for spinning, but most people aren’t,”Zacharkiw says. “It’s about going outside of your comfort zone to try something new—like we did in our younger ears.”