Lee’s Blog

Lee’s commentary and advice on health, fitness and  other events will appear here when she feels she has something good to share with you.


Post #1 June 16, 2015:

Boomers’ New Era


What will the average baby boomer’s life be like in ten years? At fifty-eight years old, Mark Rosenstein, wearing his black baseball hat backwards and green suede converse gym shoes is smiling wide and chewing gum as he describes his new adventure, teaching “Fighter Fit” boxing sessions. Mark bounces from heel to heel on the black foam floor of the Glen Ellyn park district gym with the energy of a teenager while waiting for his client. A few weeks into his new career, Mark beams. He has always been a daily exerciser, but not as an occupation. A typical workout for Mark includes cycling, lifting weights and cardio on the elliptical machine for at least an hour. His day job is still a sales rep for a men’s designer clothing line. He pats Billy Rizzo on the back as he rushes in from work at 5:00 pm. Billy sets down his bag, puts on his shoes and padded Everlast gloves. Billy, a lean fifty-one year old with a salt and pepper flat top crew cut, is about eight inches taller than Mark.

Both men are baby boomers yet share that young vigor. A report published by the census bureau in 2010 titled The Next Four Decades projects a rapid shift in the age structure of the US population in the next few decades. They estimate the group over sixty-five will account for a greater percentage of Americans, 19% by 2030 up from 13% in 2010. As the population matures, the attitudes of many boomers remain young at heart. Being the first generation to embrace exercise as part of their daily routine may be why. But the data is mixed as to whether this will help them age more healthfully than their previous generation.

Mark’s sinewy calves flex as he walks around the gym floor, shifting mats and weights, and they show that hitting the gym hard has been a lifelong habit. His new adventure sprang from his love of exercise at a time when most aspects of his life were changing. A recent divorce, a new place to live, and a new personal trainer certificate he studied for online from ISSA (Illinois Sports Sciences Association) all collided with his enjoyment of hitting the heavy bag.   Mark guides Billy using a slow firm voice, “Warm up with some knee lifts okay Rizz?” Mark stands next to a six foot long heavy bag hanging in the corner as he opens an app on his phone which makes a realistic bell sound, like the end of a boxing round, every three minutes. Each set of three minutes includes high intensity exercise for Billy; push ups, laps on the track, hanging his body from his hands holding the top of a weight machine as Mark punches his sides, then more push ups.

“Now for the fun part” Mark grins in my direction as I watch sitting on a nearby weight bench, notepad on my knees. Mark puts large, round black and red pads on his hands labeled Ringside. As Mark holds the pads high, I watch him take hits from his tall muscled client Rizzo. Mark’s shoulder absorbs the punches as he steps backwards in a circle around Billy, and he never blinks staring at Billy’s fists coming at him. Mark’s head and shoulders don’t move as Billy’s glove thumps into the pad, but his shoulder blade vibrates backwards from the force. I think about the complex shoulder rotator cuff repair Mark had a few years ago, I helped him to rehab it. I’m wondering how Mark’s shoulders feel now, but I am afraid to ask. There is no mistaking how much he loves doing this.


The question of which generation is the healthiest was raised in a March 2013 article of JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) on The Status of Baby Boomers’ Health. The study found the percent of boomers, compared to their previous generation, who reported being in “excellent health,” was down from 32% to 13.2%. The same study showed the percent of regular exercisers to be less in boomers, 49% in the prior generation down to 35% in boomers. Diabetes and smoking rates were better in boomers, but drinking and obesity rates were statistically higher. So the mixed results leads me to question how health care providers will be able to handle the boomers’ needs and what those needs will be?

Being a provider of healthcare myself for over twenty years as a physical therapist, I have seen the population change up close. Severe injuries due to exercise are on the rise and seem to limit boomers’ active lifestyle more than effects of aging. Educating patients on the status of their joints, and what each joint is capable of doing, has daily been part of my job. I know how much cartilage the average knee and shoulder of a fifty-eight year old man has left, and I can calculate in my brain the relative force we should put on it. Many times I have recited the same speech to aging runners and weight lifters, “The cartilage in your joints is like the rubber on your tires, the more miles you drive the less you have, and some day you may need new tires.”

Mark’s smile exudes passion and I am conflicted as I crouch with my pad watching, fearing that my passion will clash with his. Protecting all the baby boomers from harm is somehow a role I have taken on. I know how difficult shoulder cartilage is to fix once it’s broken. The shoulder replacement surgeries don’t yet have the success rates of knee and hip replacement. I understand exercise is a way out of physical, and at times emotional, pain, but I can’t help but gauge the potential damage this kind of exercise can do to a person and Mark specifically. It’s a guy thing I think to myself, and sometimes you just have to turn off your brain and let guys be guys.

The hour session passes quickly and Billy never stops, other than to get a few quick sips of water. “Twenty sets of two’s okay Bill?” Mark whispers and Billy takes every hint from Mark instantly with a nod, as their shirts get drenched. “Doing great Billy.” Mark’s words to Billy are all positive and subtle. Billy’s breathing gradually crescendos from barely audible to a series of high-pitched sighs and grunts. The new bond between the two men is a delight to watch; so calm and effortless is their back and forth, even amidst the brutal exercise. This connection seems so pure and rare in this era of social media, and is so needed.   So many hunger for it.   Having a genuine personal link with others, through exercise or other common interests may be part of keeping that youthful outlook.

Mark’s ability to inspire and connect to other boomers like Billy Rizzo is so moving to me. Rizzo packs to leave, I ask how he met Mark and learn they met watching their sons’ tee-ball games together over a decade ago. They reconnected recently over a spin class, taught by Mark, at the local health club. This is Billy’s third session, they pat each other on the butt, smile and nod goodbye. Billy is beaming as bright as Mark as he leaves.

“If I could make a living at this,” Mark says while unwinding the white tape from his hands that was under the pads, “I would do only this, I love it that much. When I am doing this, I am not thinking about anything else, EVER.” He leans towards me as I cower on the weight bench, gently posing questions. “I can’t say that about anything else in my life.”

“How does your shoulder feel?” I ask after Rizzo is gone, afraid to disrupt this endorphin rush. Mark lowers his head a bit as he packs his pads and grins “Pretty sore.” Mark’s gentle charm balances his muscular frame, which is now more chiseled due to his recent weight loss of almost twenty pounds. I edit myself, gazing silently at my pad, not wanting to dampen his passion.

Boomers must walk a mental tightrope to keep their vitality and to push through the hard and painful times that come with life, aging or aggressive exercise.   Keeping their power must be agonizing. Because for a boomer, a ‘baby’ boomer, it seems that generation is always supposed to be young and invincible. All the new technology, the fitness craze and medical advances may have lead them to think that aging may never come.

In Mark I see the best of the boomers, a youthful glow even as he slips off his hat to smear sweat from his brow and reveal his sparse grey hair. Often I have seen patients in my work that were seventy or eighty, but look and act decades younger, and I wonder what is their magic, just genes, state of mind or regular exercise? Maybe it’s a combination of those things held together with a young point of view, a willingness to keep trying and keep connecting with others. I gather there is more to aging well than just staying fit and protecting your joints from harm. It’s a delicate balance of not losing yourself and your drive, while keeping your health and your positive mind-set, because it will get harder as we all age. So we must fight to keep it, not give in, and keep swinging until the bell rings.