Kathy Kohner Zuckerman was 16 years old when her father, Frederick Kohner, published a novel based on her adventures on the beaches of Malibu. The book spawned movies and television shows, and Gidget — the fictional character inspired by Zuckerman — became an international surfing icon.
Now that the real Gidget is approaching her 70th birthday — Zuckerman will hit the milestone in January — she’s learning, like 78 million other baby boomers who are headed for their golden years, how to apply the activities she once took for granted to life as a healthy senior.
For Zuckerman, who will speak at the International Conference on Positive Aging in Los Angeles Dec. 7-10, that meant a return to the beaches that launched a thousand little Gidgets.
“After not being on a board since [the age of] 18,” she said, “I learned how to get back on.”
And when it comes to safeguarding her health, experts would agree that Zuckerman is on the right track — decades of research support the notion that physical activity can help ward off some of the most common ailments caused by aging, like heart disease, high blood pressure and even, possibly, Alzheimer’s.
For instance, in a frequently cited study regarding the benefits of exercise over time, researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School measured the cardiovascular toll of inactivity, followed by the impact of exercise, on five 20-year-old men in 1966 (the men would be tested again 30 years later).
After 20 days of bed rest, the otherwise healthy young men’s cardiovascular well-being decreased. But once they completed a subsequent eight-week running regimen, all five had regained or surpassed their original level of fitness.
When the men came back for a follow-up in 1996, researchers found that at age 50 they had put on weight and their overall health had declined. The same men were put on a new, six-month fitness plan, and by the end of it, all five had returned to level they enjoyed as 20-year-olds.
Notably, the study states, 20 days of inactivity took more of a toll on the men’s health at age 20 than the subsequent 30 years of aging.
When it comes to Alzheimer’s — the fifth leading cause of death among Americans age 65 and older, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) — research about the benefits of exercise is preliminary but promising. A state-of-the-science panel in April conducted by the NIH concluded that although more research needs to be done on the topic, studies suggest that regular physical activity may help in staving off cognitive decline associated with the disease.
And research continues to support this notion: In a study published in October in the journal Neurology, researchers found that among 299 older adults, those who walked approximately six miles per week had less cognitive impairment than those who did not.
In fact, exercise and physical fitness is such an important part of healthy aging that the NIH is preparing to launch Go4Life in the spring, a program that will provide seniors with information and tips to work exercise into their daily lives.
“We needed a national campaign to kick off the idea that exercise and physical activity are very important for older adults,” said Karen Pocinki, a spokeswoman for the NIH’s National Institute of Aging. “It’s never too late to start being active.”
The program, which will offer a DVD and a book as well, includes suggestions like how to start a fitness regimen and ways to set goals.
It’s designed to help older adults acquire the tools they need to plan a regular routine.
“A long time ago people were told by their doctors that they needed to exercise, but they did not know what to do,” Pocinki said. “We put together a panel of experts, and they came up with an overall list of health and nutrition … that [seniors] can follow.”
None of these suggestions come as a surprise to Zuckerman. The 69-year-old Westside resident walks every day — “I can’t sleep if I don’t,” she said — and tries to get out on her surfboard at least once a week, even if just to paddle around.
It was scary, she said, hitting the waves again after so many years, but well worth it for the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment.
“Going back on the surfboard, I have this incredible feeling that I’m physically capable of doing something that I had done a long time ago,” she said. “I’m realizing that what I did a long time ago and what I can do today are strung together very tightly — once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you don’t forget.”
Plus, she adds, it’s a good reminder that life goes on no matter how old you are, and that being sedentary is no way to live it.
“Just get the blood flowing,” she said. “Just keep on moving.”
For more information about the International Conference on Positive Aging, “Exploring Positive Aging: Designing Practice and Advancing Knowledge,” Dec. 7-10 at the Center for Nonprofit Management, visit positiveaging.fielding.edu.