Herb Levitan was never a competitive athlete. And then he retired.
When he was 66, he saw an advertisement for the Northern Virginia Senior Olympics and picked softball and swimming as events he thought he could compete in. Fast forward 13 years and Levitan, now 79, has won so many gold medals that he has to give them away.
“When I won my first one I said to myself, ‘Huh, this is more fun than I thought it would be,” says Levitan, a retired neuroscience professor.
The science is clear: study after study shows that physical activity for seniors can not only increase lifespans but also drastically improve quality of life. On the flip side, a sedentary lifestyle can exacerbate many of the health problems that come with aging. And the benefits can come from activities as simple as taking a stroll.
According to a 2016 survey of research by the National Institutes of Health, “regular physical activity is safe for healthy and for frail older people and the risks of developing major cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, obesity, falls, cognitive impairments, osteoporosis and muscular weakness are decreased by regularly completing activities ranging from low walking through to more vigorous sports and resistance exercises.” It concludes, though, that “participation in physical activities remains low amongst older adults.”
For Levitan, though, the health benefits aren’t what drives him to compete.
He’d long enjoyed swimming before he began competing and he often rode his bicycle to work. What he discovered with retirement, though, is a world of athletic competition for active seniors. The Northern Virginia Senior Olympics, like similar tournaments, break down the roughly 30 events on offer into five and 10-year age divisions. And if you finish high enough, you can qualify to go to statewide and nationwide tournaments. Next year, Levitan plans to go to the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.
Levitan says most of the joy he gets from competing comes from the preparation and the relationships he’s formed through athletics.
“I get such satisfaction, both mentally and physically, from training and participating. I can’t say I do it because I want to be healthy, but it ends up being the result, of course,” he says. “If you enjoy it and it motivates you to continue, that’s clearly a benefit. If I don’t do it I miss it. It’s almost an addiction. I feel like I have to do something every day.”
Glen Rosen takes a different tack. The 68-year-old retired investment banker likes to compete against himself.
He was living near Orlando when a car accident shortly after he retired in 2012 left him with a broken ankle and torn ligaments in his leg. He says he used the prolonged physical rehabilitation process as an excuse to become more physically active. Outside of golf and the occasional tennis outing, he says he wasn’t very active by the end of his working life. When he took responsibility for his rehab and started going to the local Jewish community center to build up his strength, he noticed a group of similarly aged men who regularly played pick-up basketball on weekdays.
“I thought back to how much I loved playing as a child, so I tried to channel my inner [NBA hall of famer] Charles Barkley,” he says. “My shot wasn’t great at first, but I tried to do the small things well, get some rebounds and the like.”
After that, he says, he caught the exercise bug. To allow himself to play longer, he started focusing on his cardiovascular stamina, going for jogs and bicycling regularly. Since moving to Washington a little over a year ago, he hasn’t been able to play as much basketball. But he’s stayed on his bike, tracking his weekly mileage and trying to top himself every month, making some adjustments for weather. Plus, he finds the city to be particularly bike-friendly compared to the suburban Florida area he moved from. On any given afternoon, you might see him flying down the two-way bicycle lane on 15th street.
“Saddle sores set me back a little bit last fall,” Rosen says. “Other than that, it’s been nothing but up. Eventually, I suppose age will set in. But so far, so good.”
Rosen says he’s considering working on his pool stroke in hopes of one day competing in a triathlon, an experience Levitan knows very well. He’s been doing them every year for the last decade. Contestants swim for one mile in the Potomac River, run for six and bicycle for 25. Paths are marked for the various age groups.
“People are very encouraging. When people pass me and they see the age on the path they say, ‘Boy, you’re an inspiration.’ And that’s a terrific feeling for me, even though they’re passing me,” Levitan says. “It doesn’t really bother me when I see a 30- or 40-year-old go by.”
When asked how he gets through such a grueling event, Levitan says there’s no strategy.
“You just gotta hope that you get to the end soon.” n