Abe Cohen works out every day, and the workouts include at least a couple hundred crunches. Cohen is 92. His wife, Esther, who works out with him, is 86. Her daily ab exercise total is 400.
The Bay Shore, N.Y., couple have been exercising at a Bally’s Fitness Center in their Long Island community for 27 years. “We go to Bally’s seven days a week — me and my wife, of course — and we go for two hours,” Cohen said.
Experts think the Cohens show what older people are capable of, although they caution most of them not to try everything the Cohens do.
For the Cohens, exercise started at Abe Cohen’s retirement in 1975, with a suggestion by the younger of their two children, 57-year-old Martin.
As Abe recalls it, the conversation went like this: “He said, ’Dad, join the gym, you’ll have something to do.’ I said, ’Come on, I never did it; why are you bothering me?”’
Even though neither Abe nor Esther had been exercisers before they joined the Bally’s club, both were used to physically hard work.
Abe had worked at a plant that made electrical equipment used in power plants. “I used to pick up steel sheets, cut the sheets, but I got so used to it that to me it wasn’t heavy work,” he said. His wife had worked in clothing factories, and retired a year after her husband, so she was still working at the factory while they had started at the gym.
The Cohens began with the cheapest contract, to see how things went. “It worked itself up,” Abe said.
Now, it’s habit. “We do it automatically. We just enjoy it. It’s not a chore.”
The Cohens typically are at the gym at 6:15 a.m., just after it opens. He does 30 minutes at a fast walk on the treadmill, works his legs and arms on the machines, and then does his famous crunches.
She also does arm and leg exercises, along with stomach exercises, but no aerobics. The club no longer has the track she used to walk, and the dance exercise classes are too fast-paced, so she lets her housework handle her aerobics. “I keep myself busy going up and down to the basement,” she said. “That’s enough walking.”
Secret to old age
The Cohens’ workouts get attention from members and employees of the club. “They fuss with us,” Abe Cohen said.
So do other seniors. “All the guys say, ’We want to be like you,”’ he said. “I give them incentives, they say.”
“Most people are amazed by their age and what they are capable of doing,” said Mitch Solarsh, the club’s general manager. “It is unbelievable to exercise as consistently as they do and lift what they do.”
But Abe Cohen does not believe exercise alone is the secret to the couple’s successful old age. The Cohens will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary Nov. 9, and he believes a happy married life is a big factor.
“We thank God for our blessings, and she takes care of me and I take care of her,” he said. “We don’t envy nobody, and we are grateful for what we have.”
Experts also marvel at their ability. “To some extent, they are geriatric supermen,” said Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, head of kinesiology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “I like to think of them as a barometer of the possible, an indicator of human potential.”
The Cohens can be an object lesson to people young and old about the benefits of getting strong and staying that way. “If a person practices regular moderate to vigorous physical activity, they can expect to be outperforming the average for their age group,” Chodzko-Zajko said.
The trouble for most people is that they don’t exercise, said Colin Milner, chief executive officer of the International Council on Active Aging, an advocacy group for physical activity in older people. “They lose their abilities to function on a daily basis — a result of disuse,” he said.
Studies have shown that starting exercise, even in the 90s, can restore some of the loss. It won’t make all old people into future Cohens, but many people are headed that way, Milner said.
He pointed to the athletes of the Senior Olympics, although those competitors can start at the callow age of 50. The Summer National Senior Games began with 2,500 athletes in 1987, and had risen to 12,000 in 1999 — a sharp increase in elite-level older people, he said.
Very old people should see a doctor before they start an exercise program, and then work at their own pace, Milner said.
“Listen to your body and go with the pace your body is telling you.”