YOUNG AT HEART; SENIORS ABANDON EASY CHAIR TO PURSUE LONGER, HEALTHIER LIVES.
Ben Levinson steadies himself, reaches for the bar dangling overhead, draws in a big breath and pulls, exhaling - and smiling.
He's in his favorite place - the Spectrum Club in Santa Monica, where he works out two or three times a week, taking an aerobics class before hitting the treadmill and the weight machines.
Levinson's 103 - and he never set foot in a gym until he was 100.
``Age was taking its toll,'' said the Los Angeles widower, who still lives alone in a high-rise apartment and drives his own car. ``I was going downhill and I wanted to see if I could hold off on that as much as possible. So I went into strength conditioning. And it's made all the difference.''
A lot of skeptics would say Levinson was just blessed with good genes, and go back to scarfing chips and watching TV.
Well, maybe he was. But Levinson has had a long and active life largely because he never smokes, never drinks hard liquor, eats everything in moderation and - even though it began only in recent years - exercises vigorously, said David Crawley, a fitness consultant who works with elderly people at the Spectrum.
``When Ben first came in, he couldn't do hardly anything,'' Crawley said, indicating rooms filled with workout equipment. ``But we started slow and he's kept at it. I told him when I met him that I'd make him feel like an 80-year-old. And he does.''
In fact, as the oldest competitor at the recent Nike World Masters Games in Portland, Levinson set a world's record, heaving an 8-pound, 8-ounce shot 10 feet, 1-1/4 inches. Two weeks later, he broke his own record by 2 feet on ``The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.''
Which proves, as many medical experts contend, that it's never too late for most of us to start living a healthier life.
Raising the bar
And now, preparing for the long haul is becoming more important than ever.
Gone are the days when retirement at 65 also signals the end of life. That ``senior citizen'' marker is fast becoming merely middle age.
Demographers say the number of people turning 100 is roughly doubling every decade, and by 2015, the ``centenarian boom'' will be in full swing with an estimated 170,000 centenarians in the United States alone.
If you can't bear thinking about living that long and getting more frail and disabled - as fully half of 100-year-olds are - you'd better get off your duff now - at whatever age ``now'' is, say medical experts.
Although some health professionals say becoming physically fit in the teens and 20s and staying that way can help assure a long, healthy life, Lynn Adler, head of the Phoenix-based National Centenarian Awareness Project, said her research shows that nature is more forgiving.
``I think that around 50 is the critical age,'' she said. ``I think that's the time most people - if they haven't already - need to start to pay attention to their health, fitness, just in general taking good care of themselves.''
Those who do can rebuild lost strength and vitality, just as Levinson did.
And younger people can learn a lot from older folks, even if they're not in the best of health, Adler contends. Today's centenarians reached the 100-year milestone largely without the benefit of recent studies that show that cholesterol in animal-based foods can clog arteries and cause heart attacks, that liquor can pickle your liver, cigarettes eat away at your lungs, and that exercise keeps your heart pumping and your spirits high.
``Aging came as a big surprise to them,'' Adler said. ``But centenarians are there to show us what's gone right and what's gone wrong. They're the examples, the pioneers. Baby boomers have no excuse; if things go wrong, it's our own fault.
``A friend of mine who is 100 and a doctor says, `You start with good genes and the rest is up to you.' ''
For many of us, that means cutting back on fatty foods, trimming our waistlines and pumping some iron.
Others, like Bob Jones, go to greater lengths to stay young.
At 65, the Palm Springs resident says he felt like an old man, filled with aches and pains and devoid of energy. Then he heard about Dr. Edmund Chin's Palm Springs Life Extension Institute. Nearly five years later, with weekly hormone injections, he's managed to hold the years at bay.
``I feel like I did when I was feeling my oats in my early 40s,'' said Jones, 69, who swims daily, goes mountain climbing twice a week and is in training for a senior body-building competition next spring. ``I'm feeling my oats again. It's given me a new lease on life.''
He was so thrilled with the hormone treatments that he signed on as marketing director for Chin's clinic, which was established in 1993 and treats thousands of patients from all over the world.
Patients report feeling 10 years younger after a year of weekly treatments that restore their hormones to the levels found in their systems in their 20s, said Jones. A 1996 study by the University of Wisconsin on the institute's first 1,000 patients revealed that none had suffered any side effects from the hormone boost: pills and injections that include testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, melatonin, DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) and HGH (human growth hormone).
The only drawback, Jones said, is the expense, with the HGH injections alone costing $150 a week.
Others in search of better health seek out a more conservative route at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Santa Monica, run by Robert Pritikin, son of the late nutrition guru Nathan Pritikin, who founded the center more than 20 years ago.
The Pritikin Center teaches people how to shop, cook and eat healthy foods; what kinds of exercise and how much is best for them; and how to maintain a healthier lifestyle for the rest of their lives. Many patients come to Pritikin after suffering heart attacks, knowing that changing their lives probably means saving their lives.
According to various medical journals, Pritikin patients with high cholesterol lowered their cholesterol by 23 percent; 83 percent of those taking medication for hypertension lowered their blood pressure enough to be medication-free, and 39 percent of diabetics on insulin and 70 percent on oral medication left the center free of a need for any medication. And 51 of 64 heart patients in 1976 who checked in needing coronary artery bypass surgery had still not had - and didn't need - the surgery five years after checking out of the Pritikin Center.
``If you stay in shape, you can stay a kid,'' said Pritikin. ``We see people at a fairly advanced age and we get them eating right and we get them weight lifting, and they get a spring in their step. And it's amazing how their attitudes change.''
People don't just decide that they'll let their bodies deteriorate, Pritikin said.
``You just sort of lose your vitality degree by degree,'' he said. ``If it happened all of a sudden, you'd say, `My God, I've gotta do something.' But it's sort of an insidious thing.''
Like most nutritional experts, Pritikin advocates eating three low-fat meals and at least two snacks daily, with lots of fruits and vegetables and enough calories to keep your metabolism humming. Experts also advise doing enough exercise to keep joints flexible and burn calories.
``There's no magic to it,'' he said. ``Just work. Nobody wants to be old. The ideal is to die young, as late in life as possible.''
The Pritikin program's not cheap, either: Costs for three weeks at the center range from $1,392 to $4,160.
For much less money, seniors who want to get healthier can get many of the same services at Glendale Memorial Hospital, whose cardiac rehabilitation center offers classes in shopping, cooking and eating right, as well as lectures and gym workouts. A series of exercise-to-the-big-bands classes costs $16 for eight sessions, $30 for 20 sessions.
One recent morning, more than 30 seniors swung their hips, shimmied and kicked, following the energetic lead of exercise physiologist Michelle Galanti as a Glenn Miller tune blared.
``Come on, people!'' Galanti urged, her legs pumping inside red tights. ``Use both arms, and step. Reach and back. Kick. Kick. Come on, smile! You're supposed to be having fun!''
With flushed faces, the class members tried to match her step for step.
``You don't have to dance or do it right,'' Tina Ivie, head of the cardiac rehab center, urged a beginner. ``You just have to keep moving.''
The twice-a-week workout helps keep him young, said Claude Niesen, 78, of Eagle Rock, a retired high school athletics coach.
``You get worked out all over,'' he said. ``I'm in good health, thank God. But I want to stay young.''
June Bingo, 69, of Los Feliz has been with the exercise group for a year, and has seen her cholesterol drop, along with her blood pressure. She also walks 20 to 30 minutes twice a week.
``I have this thing about medicine: I don't like to take it. But I don't need it anymore, now,'' she said. ``And I have more flexibility and more energy.''
Exercise is not only good for the heart; it's good for the joints, reducing the pain of the arthritis that eventually affects most seniors, said Galanti.
``When the muscles fatigue, the joints have to pick up the slack, and that's what hurts,'' she said. ``We try to build strong muscles.''
That's Crawley's aim, too, as he leads a class of seniors through their workout at the Spectrum.
``The average age is 75 and they're all pumpin' iron,'' he said with a grin. ``But it's not about getting big muscles. It's about feeling good, maintaining strength. Or eventually, without your muscles to hold you up, you slump and you hunch over, and you look like a little, old person.''
He discounts the old exerciser's motto of ``no pain, no gain.'' Working slowly but steadily for a longer period of time gets better results than working too hard, too fast - without causing injury or aggravating existing medical conditions.
A Harvard study several years ago showed that people with high risk factors for heart attacks, once they began exercising vigorously, had half the heart attacks of people without risk factors who did not exercise.
``The reality is sitting in your chair is more dangerous than exercising,'' Crawley said. ``According to a 1996 Surgeon General's report, inactivity is as bad for you as smoking cigarettes for 40 years,'' he said.
No matter how hard you exercise or how careful you are with your diet, the human body seems to be built to last a maximum of 120 to 130 years, under optimum conditions, gerontologists say. Most of us - after a life of overeating, smoking, drinking, shunning exercise and falling prey to an accident or disease - live barely half that long.
But medical experts say staying fit will make our old age - however long it turns out to be - healthier and more fulfilling.
For Levinson, who graduated from business school the same year the Titanic sank and had a long career as a lamp manufacturer, there's nothing better than exercise to keep feeling young.
``I call myself a recycled teen-ager,'' he said. ``Working out keeps me that way.''
Want to learn more about staying young? Here are some places to start:
Glendale Memorial Hospital's Exercise to the Sounds of the Big Bands class, 8 to 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, second floor of Glendale Heart Center at the hospital, 1420 S. Central Ave.; $16 for eight sessions, $30 for 20 sessions; pre-registration required. (818) 502-2396 or (818) 502-2348.
``Living Beyond 100,'' a videotape featuring interviews with geriatric and health experts, plus centenarians, can be ordered by calling (800) 289-0758. Cost is $19.95.
National Centenarian Awareness Project, (800) 243-1889.
Palm Springs Life Extension Institute, 2825 Tahquitz Canyon Way, Building A, Palm Springs 92262; (760) 327-8939.
Pritikin Longevity Center, Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, 1700 Ocean Ave., Santa Monica 90401; (310) 458-6700.
Skirball Cultural Center and UCLA Center on Aging present ``Lifespan: Exploring and Celebrating the New Longevity.''
Afternoon seminars on issues related to aging will be held Oct. 14 and 15 at the Skirball Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Admission to the museum and the seminars is $5 per day. An evening film on aging will be shown Oct. 15; admission to the special screening is $10, $8 for members and students.
To wrap up the weekend, the Skirball Center will host the InterGenerational Festival on Oct. 18, complete with a time-travel scavenger hunt, museum tours, movies, storytelling, music and dance performances; admission is $8, free for children younger than 12. For tickets to all events, call (323) 660-8587.
5 Photos, Box
Photo: (1--2--Cover--Color) centenarians
100th birthday, and still blowing out your own candles. Sound like a plan to you?
Then you should hear from nutritionists, geriatric experts, exercise specialists and, of course, from those who have hit 100.
(Photo illustration) Bradford Mar/Daily News
(3) ``Age was taking its toll. ... I wanted to see if I could hold off on that as much as possible. So I went into strength conditioning. And it's made all the difference,'' says Ben Levinson, 103.
(4) Levinson works out two or three times a week at the Spectrum Club in Santa Monica, where he takes an aerobics class before hitting the treadmill and the weight machines.
Shaun Dyer/Special to the Daily News
(5) Exercise physiologist leads by energetic example, encouraging class members to kick up their heels to the sounds of big-band music.
Phil McCarten/Daily News
Box: THINKING YOUNGER (See Text)