- Associated Press - Monday, April 20, 2015

LOGANSPORT, Ind. (AP) - Some people think of getting older as a downhill ride. Going “over the hill” and all that.

Not Denise Heimlich.

The Logansport graduate is banking on more older adults wanting to get active - and stay active - as she heads up the nation’s only triathlon team based in a retirement community.

Adults ages 55 and older, whether they’re residents of the Still Hopes retirement community or just live in the town of West Columbia, South Carolina, where the community is located, can sign up to train in a 3- to 5-month program that’s designed to make senior adults capable of completing a sprint triathlon.

“The whole premise is that older adults have continuing potential,” Heimlich said. “It’s not all downhill and it shouldn’t be. . You should be working on your full potential regardless of age.”

Raised in Logansport and a 1975 Logansport High School graduate, Heimlich went back to school at 36 years old as a nontraditional student pursuing a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, in exercise science “as it applies to balance and movement coordination with the elderly,” she said.

After graduating from Indiana University, she worked in Ithaca, New York, for four years as a fitness program coordinator for retirees, then moved to South Carolina 11 years ago to become Still Hopes community’s first director of wellness.

“I got to design their wellness center,” Heimlich said. The 8-year-old center is where the triathlon training takes place, and spans about 12,000 square feet with an indoor 60-by-25-foot pool as well as cardio and strength machines, an aerobics studio and spin bikes.

She also helped launch the triathlon training. Her assistant, Stefanie Cain, is a triathlete in her 20s who qualified for a national triathlon in 2012.

“I said, ‘How would you like to train an older adult team to do a triathlon?’” Heimlich recalled telling Cain.

The National Institutes of Health reports that staying active is one of the best things older adults can do to remain healthy. An article published on the NIH’s SeniorHealth website indicates lack of physical activity can lead to more doctor’s visits, hospitalizations and medicines, while exercise can effectively treat a number of chronic conditions and can help prevent or delay disease and disability.

Launching a senior triathlete program also involved reshaping common perceptions of retirement communities. Heimlich and Cain wanted people not to think of moving to Still Hopes “as going to ‘the home,’” Heimlich said.

Now, the program is full, with 21 participants ranging from 56 to 69 years old, with a waiting list, too. “In the past we’ve had a 78-year-old,” Heimlich said, and another woman in her mid-70s whose race time “beat some of the people in their 40s.”

“Some are very fit, some are not at all, some have joint issues, same thing everybody has,” Heimlich said. “…You’ll see some heavier people, you’ll see some people that wouldn’t call themselves an athlete. And yet in 20 weeks, they complete it.”

At the end of the program, participants race in the Tom Hoskins Memorial Sprint Triathlon sponsored by a local YMCA. Results from the 2014 race indicate 142 athletes total participated in it.

A sprint triathlon like that is the easiest kind of triathlon, Heimlich explained. But “easy” is a relative term. It involves a 350-yard swim in a pool, a 13-mile bike ride and a 3.1-mile run.

At the beginning of the Still Hopes training program Heimlich helped launch, all that’s required is to be able to walk briskly for 20 minutes and to swim.

“When I say they have to be able to walk 20 minutes, they can barely do that. Many of them haven’t ridden a bike since they were kids,” Heimlich said.

Some also have to overcome fears, like being afraid of the water. But the challenges make victory all the sweeter for trainees.

“They’re so proud of themselves. It’s so empowering. . I’m always in tears,” Heimlich said.

Still Hopes and Heimlich’s wellness team received national recognition for the program when she and Cain presented at a conference in Denver, Colorado, in 2013, where they discovered Still Hopes was the only retirement community in the nation to field a triathlon team.

The community also won an innovation award the next year from the South Carolina branch of LeadingAge, the coalition of 6,000 aging services organizations which put on the Denver conference.

“Still Hopes doesn’t really make money at it - in fact they’ve lost money - but they felt it’s an important statement to make,” Heimlich said of the triathlon program.

The statement? Just to contradict the idea of “hey, I thought you got sick and frail when you were old,” Heimlich said. “No you don’t, evidently.”

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Source: Pharos-Tribune, http://bit.ly/1b1qQBm

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Information from: Pharos-Tribune, http://www.pharostribune.com

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