Keeping Themselves Fit for Going to the Rescue
This weekend, the last of the lifeguards still on duty at two of Long Island’s largest public beaches — Jones Beach and Robert Moses State Park — will climb down from the stands and lock up their shacks for the winter.
Although the New York State office of parks does not track statistics on the ages of its lifeguards, unofficial estimates are that about 10 percent of the lifeguards at Jones Beach and Robert Moses State parks are 50 and older. The parks stretch across the barrier beaches of eastern Nassau and western Suffolk counties on Long Island.
The lifeguards started at age 17 or 18, worked through the summers, and now — even though many are retired from other careers — continue to return to the beach season after season.
In order to return for another season of sun, surf and rescues (on average, a lifeguard at these popular beaches is involved in about 15 to 20 rescues a season, said George Gorman, deputy regional director of the New York State office of parks) the experienced lifeguards have to pass a state-administered rehire test every spring. The exam is meant to test their speed in the water and on land.
The test consists of a 100-meter pool swim that must be completed in 1 minute, 20 seconds and a quarter-mile run in 2 minutes, 10 seconds.
"If you don’t pass, it doesn’t matter how many years you’ve been there," said Bruce Meirowitz, 60, a retired high school art teacher from Sound Beach, N.Y., who has been a lifeguard since he was 17. "To stay in this Peter Pan, Never Never Land we live in as lifeguards, you have to pay your dues."
That means training — much of it done over the winter, which is when older adults tend to slack off. "The literature supports the idea that older people are less active in winter," said Dr. Michael E. Rogers, an exercise scientist at Wichita State University in Kansas.
So does Dr. Rogers’s own experience as research director for the university’s Center for Physical Activity and Aging. "If we’re doing a six-month study, say, from September to May, among older adults, we know that activity is going to decrease in the colder months among our subjects, so we build that into the model. Or we try to avoid cold weather entirely for research."
By contrast, in early November, Mr. Meirowitz and about a dozen of his colleagues from Robert Moses will hit the pool at the Brentwood campus of Suffolk County Community College.
Tom Donovan, a 62-year-old lifeguard, organizes the 60-minute workouts, which continue through the winter and are geared specifically toward the swim portion of the state rehire test, given in May. The thrice-weekly sessions focus on shorter, harder intervals, to mimic the test. A typical workout is two laps in the pool at an almost all-out pace, done four times, with just 20 seconds rest between each two-lap set.
"We’re trying to maintain what we had and maybe get a little bit better," said Mr. Donovan, who lives in West Islip, N.Y., and has been a guard for 45 years. "At our age," he added, "we are being very careful to avoid injury."
The program has worked well. In the eight years since they have been doing the workouts, the core members of this group (who range in age from 57 to 70) have continued to pass the test. Some, including Mr. Donovan, even improved. In 2011, he managed to knock two seconds off his 100-meter time from the previous year. Still, he acknowledges, not every older guard can continue to outswim the calendar.
"Unfortunately, we do lose one or two each year," he said. "It’s sad, but inevitability does play a role."
Although it’s voluntary, most of the older guards at the two state parks participate in informal training groups like these. "Nobody is sitting around all winter," Mr. Donovan says.
"We’re really proud of our older lifeguards," said Mr. Gorman of the New York State office of parks. "To me, these guys are like Jack LaLanne."
And they send a powerful message: "You shouldn’t use age or the weather as an excuse not to exercise," said Dr. Rogers. "We have people who say, ‘I’m too old for that,’ or ‘it’s too cold to train.’ Well, these guys disprove that. Look at what they’re able to do."
Here is how they do it and how you can apply their later-in-life fitness lessons:
SET GOALS The lifeguards have a clear goal for the winter. The state rehiring test in May enables them to return to the lifestyle they love, summer after summer. "You may want to create your own summer goal," said Margaret Moore, co-director of the Harvard/McLean Hospital Institute of Coaching. "I’m going to go for a hike in Europe or a bike ride in Vermont next summer.’ " The objective could also be to fit into a certain size dress or pair of pants for your 40th high school reunion. "You set a goal that’s challenging and that requires you to be fit in order to do it," Ms. Moore said, "and then work towards it over the winter."
HARNESS GROUP POWER The lifeguards do their group swim workouts together. Many of them also take spinning or other health club classes. These and other forms of group exercise are available to almost any older adult. (mall walking clubs, aquatics exercise classes at the YMCA) "It makes such a big difference," said Ed Peters, 69, a longtime Jones Beach lifeguard who lives in Syosset, N.Y., but spends winters in Jupiter, Fla., where he rides daily with a bicycle club. "When you’re on your own, sometimes it’s like ‘that’s enough.’ But when you have others around you, you tend to give it that little extra effort."
PLAY IN THE SNOW While the instinct of many people is to scurry indoors at the first breath of cold weather, Mr. Meirowitz spends most of his winter weekends, as he puts it, "playing in the snow." A longtime ski and snowboarding instructor, he is director of snowboarding at Windham Mountain ski resort in Windham, N.Y.
While he might not recommend the X-Games sport for every senior, Mr. Rogers applauds the idea of embracing winter. "Walking through the snow is a good workout and quite invigorating mentally. And we have a lot of seniors at our center who have learned to ice skate. It’s fun, and it’s a great activity."
ADAPT AND ADJUST The guards who train indoors over the winter do other kinds of activities, aside from swimming. They use the weight machines; they jog on treadmills (in part, to help prepare for the run portion of the test). Modifying your workouts is a better alternative than stopping them completely.
"We’ll often encourage seniors to turn towards strength training in the winter, which is more of an indoor activity," Mr. Rogers said. So if 75 percent of one’s activity in the summer is outdoor aerobic exercise (walking, swimming, biking) and 25 percent is resistance training, flip it around in the winter. Use the weight room more frequently, and get strong.
You may not be ready to pass a lifeguard test next summer, but at least no bullies will kick sand in your face.
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