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Staying Sharp

Still Rowin' on the River

Flex your muscles and your mind. Why 50+ rowing clubs are taking off.

Crewing on the river

AP Photo/Tim Roske

Eight rowers from the Albany Rowing Center pull their way up the Hudson River.

AT 5:45 A.M. three to five mornings a week, Mike Hyde and eight other local men meet on the banks of the Charles River north of Boston. “The river’s calm,” says Hyde, who used to teach English at Tufts University. “It’s a great time.” They climb into the rowing shell, and to the coxswain’s call, begin their precision strokes, over and over again, for six or seven miles. Practice pays: At the Head of the Charles Regatta last October, the team placed 12th out of 45 in the senior masters men’s eights three-mile race. Not bad, considering Hyde is 60, and the team’s average age is 52.

While crew is considered the sport of the elite, popular at Ivy League schools such as Brown, Harvard, and Yale (where Dr. Benjamin Spock once rowed), more older people are taking it up as exercise. “It’s the perfect sport,” says Chip Davis, publisher of The Rowing News. “It’s no-impact, and it has phenomenal health benefits. Swimming and cross-country skiing are the only sports that come as close.”

Like other exercise, rowing also helps flex the mind. According to a study published in The Journal of Gerontology: Medical Science in 2003, exercise slows the decrease in size of the brain’s temporal and prefrontal cortices, which control vital functions such as multi-tasking, planning, memory, and paying attention.

“When you have to move,” explains Aron S. Buchman, MD, an associate professor in the Department of Neurological Sciences at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, “the initiating, planning, and execution of movement doesn’t start in the muscle. The muscle is basically the final pathway that all motor activity has to go through.” The spark begins in the brain.

It Gets You Thinking. “For a lot of people, [rowing] is a new thing to learn,” says Judy Geer, co-owner of Concept 2, which manufactures oars and indoor rowing machines. Geer was also a member of three U.S. Olympic teams. “You have to think a lot when you’re doing it. In a team boat, you’ve got to be watching the people in front of you, you’ve got to be doing the same thing they’re doing, and you have to listen to what the coxswain is saying. Then all together you’re greater than the sum of your parts.”

Hyde backs that up: Many of the exercises and drills his team performs promote balance and timing, so that they can achieve that goal of rowing together. “It‘s literally true,” he says. “It’s what you train for.” At the October 2007 Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest 2-day rowing event, Hyde’s former national champions and Olympians rowed the senior masters men’s eights division in 17 minutes and 15 seconds. He admits that it was perhaps slower than his best time as a Harvard undergrad from 1965 to 1969, but says, “We were extremely pleased. This is about as close to elite as you can get.”

No surprise, considering the background of its members, but Hyde’s team is highly motivated. “Most of us work out or train every day,” he explains, adding, “We get up and get it done.” The team continues training throughout the winter, though there’s no rowing in the cold Northeast. They use indoor rowing machines, combined with weight training, walking, running, and cross-country skiing. “Some of us do take a vacation to Florida to go rowing,” he says. “Tampa’s a good city.”

No Water Needed. But you don’t have to be within 100 miles of a river or even a body of water, or know other rowers, to get the benefits from crewing. Virtual indoor rowing teams are springing up all over the country. Connected by the Internet, members don’t have to row at the same time; however they do row distance for time. (So, you do need a rowing machine.)

“They blow everybody away,” says Geer, 55. “They do an amazing number of meters.” Her company’s Web site, Concept2.com, carries a logbook where participants record their daily totals. The top rower in the online January Virtual Challenge this year was 73-year-old Kathryn Dunnmon, who logged a whopping 1,500,000 meters. The third-place team, the Ancient Mariners, rowed 12,344,384 meters, while the fourth-place team, Age Without Limits, rowed 9,502,232 meters.

Virtual teams like the Ancient Mariners publish a newsletter to help members stay in touch. “All of that is what helps keep your brain young,” she says. “New stuff, new connections, new challenges.” Again, those claims can be backed up, anecdotally. “Our thinking is better,” says retired teacher and current Ancient Mariner Bill Keating, 69. “Our sense of energy is better, that’s the main thing. We don’t lose too many people once they join us. They have heart attacks or knee replacements but they always come back.”

“We’re all dealing with age-related issues,” says Hyde, “whether it’s weight or flexibility or strength.” At 61, Hyde remains pretty flexible; his biggest issues are weight and strength. But considering he’s 6’2” and 215, it’s not that big a thing. Age doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down. At 54, Geer’s time for grand-master singles [50 to 59] during the Head of the Charles was 21.30.9 for three miles, no doubt slower than her best on the Olympic team. But she did break the course record set three years ago, 21.46.5, by a younger woman: 51-year-old Judy Geer.

Phil Scott has written for such magazines as Scientific American and New Scientist and is a regular contributor to NRTA Live & Learn.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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