Into the Age of Exercise |

Into the Age of Exercise

Ryan Slabaugh

Gone are the days of President Taft stuck in a bath tub.

Today, presidents jog miles for the cameras and have knee surgeries. But being active is more than about being vogue or in pain. It’s about living longer and living better, says 79-year-old Edwards resident Sandy Treat Sr.

Treat has 73 years of ski racing under his belt, lifts weights for 90 minutes three times a week and has the mental toughness of a prize-fighting chess player.

“The mental toughness part is earned as you mature through the years,” said Treat, who lost his first wife to cancer at the age of 49. “There are tragedies. You lose loved ones. There are economic depressions. All of these impact your life. You just have to have mental discipline to continue.”

And continue he does. During the fall, to prepare for the ski season, Treat jumps into the swimming pool at the Homestead Court Club wearing a full sweat suit.

“You just sink to the bottom,” he says with a laugh. Then he sprints, allowing the water to act as restriction and as a buffer for his joints. He gets the benefit of an aerobic workout without the wear and tear that sends weekend warriors like George W. Bush under the knife. In 1997, the then-governor of Texas had a knee ligament repaired. Al Gore and Bill Clinton also suffered knee injuries during their stay in the White House. But Treat has never had a knee problem. Not one. While he knocks on wood for luck, he knows there is no way to detect when joints will fail – especially in a high-risk activity like downhill skiing.

“As far as the knee is concerned, it is a strong joint for what it has been designed to do,” said U.S. Ski Team trainer Andy Walshe. “Unfortunately, skiing and the resultant impact of the equipment creates an environment where any load on the joint has the potential to be greatly magnified. It was not designed for these loads and so in some instances, the forces result in pretty serious injury. Most other sports don’t have this equipment-force issue to contend with.”

In other words, Walshe said, be careful. When U.S. Ski Team downhill skier Chad Fleischer was training for the 2002 Olympics, the ligaments in his knee snapped like overly-taught rubber bands. The 30-year-old skied in the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, but has had three surgeries since his December accident, including an operation in May. By Aug. 4, Fleischer will be in New Zealand training again on skis.

“To keep the joints healthy, you’ve got to keep the legs healthy,” Fleischer said. “I lift weights four days a week with heavy days and light days. I hike and bike and keep my aerobic levels up. My thing is if you shoot for seven days a week and if you get five days a week, you’re doing well.”

The idea of negative exercise is also seeping into public consciousness. A Consumer Produce Safety Commission survey found that Americans aged 35-54 sustained more than one million sports injuries requiring medical attention in 1998. This was a 33-percent increase since 1991 in the same age group. The survey also found downhill skiing and biking to be the riskiest forms of exercise.

Part of the increase can be attributed to “Boomeritis,” a laughable term, but a serious malady doctors have created to define the baby boomers who sprain, strain or bruise their bodies during exercise. In the year 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65 years old. Italy will reach that mark this year (16 to 18 percent of Americans are currently above the retirement age).

Combine the aging population with an “I’ll do it when I get around to it,” ideology on exercise and well, things might break.

Or things might break anyway.

While Fleischer has the luxury (and the money) to have personal trainers monitoring his heart levels and programming exercises from blood/lactate levels, exercise still maintains a risk. He does what he can.

“I can be so in tune with my body, I know exactly where I am and what my heart’s doing,” he said. “I want to be able to mimic my heart response when I’m not on the ski hill. I want no surprises.”

For most, these tools are fantasies. As the body changes shape and form, the workouts must adapt with or without a team of doctors. There are ways to lessen the probability of injury (routine exercise and a healthy diet), but there are no ways to predict when and where an injury will occur.

Even Dr. Richard Hawkins, who has repaired the joints on the Denver Broncos’ much-injured Terrell Davis and a slew of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff, said exercise and injury are indirectly related at best. The same goes for a reinjury.

“It’s the luck of the draw,” said Hawkins, who lends his name to the Steadman-Hawkins clinic in Vail, which worked on Fleischer. “I tell the patients their chance of reinjuring the knee they tore is 1-2 percent. The chance of tearing the other ACL is 4-5 percent. It’s rather fascinating. I don’t know if it’s something they do because of compensating the good leg, or not, or if it’s something we do in surgery. It’s an interesting study we don’t know the answer to.”

Genetics, right now, can only go so far.

“The old saying is, “The best training you can do is to pick your parents,'” Walshe said. “As far as knee injuries are concerned, other facts such as sport and competitive level are more important factors. I’m not aware of any genetic influence on knee injury rate.”

For the elder Treat, genetics have been kind. His father raced on skis (when there was no such thing as chairlifts) and his son, Sandy Treat III, was an all-American ski racer in college and wins masters events now. Treat’s grandsons are also athletic. Treat lived in the days when a workout precluded a day full of cigarettes. Weight lifting was reserved for the group of tanned necks posing on the beach.

That was until the late 1960s, when weight lifting crept into amateur athletics and today, is required by coaches at the high school level. Fitness centers boast newer and safer weight lifting systems. The exercise boom has turned into a billion-dollar industry that offers a product that will, unlike running, maintain or increase bone mass, which should make anybody over 40 leap (carefully) for joy.

Here’s why. The Medical College of Physicians in Madison, Wis., found that after the age of 30, humans start losing muscle mass and after 40, bone mass declines. Tendons and ligaments become less elastic and easier to tear. As the population ages, “Boomeritis” will become as mainstream as the most common remedy – two ibuprofen and an ice pack. From this, holistic medicines have also been discovered in mass. So has martial arts, whose instructors preach mental toughness and claim eclectic training benefits bone and muscle mass – like weight lifting – just in a different, more refined manner.

But injuries still happen. Whatever the injured chose – an Advil or a massage – doctors and trainers insist it’s better they acknowledge the pain. While milk still does a body good and an apple may, in some way, keep the doctor’s schedule open, the saying “no pain is no gain” is headed the way of the cigarette.

Cameron Hancock, 2002 NASTAR national champion, reinjured his leg three years after full ACL reconstruction on his left knee. An avid snowboarder, the 48-year-old was using weight lifting as physical therapy until the pain told him otherwise.

“I’m still a little limited as far as lateral movement on the weak side,” Hancock said. “If I was 100 percent, I’d be lifting. Absolutely. It’s like anything else, you have to be aware of that issue and keep in mind that you’re not static when you’re doing your sports.”

Longtime competitive skier and Vail resident Franz Fuchsberger, a Schneider Racing representative and eight-time Powder 8 World Champion, has been injury-free in his career. Like Treat, he knocks on wood for luck. At the same time, the 43-year-old insists the benefits of his lifestyle dwarf the risk factors.

“A lot of people jump into the gym one or two weeks before the ski season,” said Fuchsberger, who works out year-round and outdoors if possible. “You don’t become a champion after a week. It’s like learning a new language. The more you do it, the more natural it becomes. You have to maintain a fitness level at all times.”

Ultimately, exercise may be the only natural way to combat the aging process, risk or no risk. The maximum heart rate for an individual drops each year they get older. Cells stop regenerating (thus the bone and muscle loss). Keeping a strong fitness level not only increases energy and metabolism and decreases the chance for heart disease, it gives, simply put, the dedicated a chance at longer life.

“Exercise can offset some of these effects (like muscle and flexibility reduction) via a stimulus to these systems, causing the body to maintain them in a better condition,” Walshe said. “The result is a less negative impact.”

There are exceptions, of course. Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment became the oldest recorded living person when she turned 122 in 1997 and as legend has it, insisted she gave up smoking, in her advanced age, only because she couldn’t see. She died later that year, but her death was far from being tobacco-related.

For Treat, every day in this new culture means not repeating the mistakes of the less-scientific generations. The country has traded the question, “Got a light?” for “Got a membership?” In 2060, 2.5 million Americans are projected to be centenarians. Millions more like Treat will be paying monthly fees for workout rooms, aerobics classes or a morning swim. No matter what, Injuries will happen.

Treat, who says he’s maintained a weight of between 175 and 182 since he matured, just returned to his home after spending a week at Rossignol’s Race Camp in Mammoth Mountain, Calif. An active member of the community and at the Homestead Court Club, he insists on being an 80-year-old ski racer.

“If you would have told me that when I was 25, I would have thought it was impossible,” Treat said. “Humanity’s changed.”

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