For two senior athletes, aging as a blessing, not a burden

August 23, 2016

For many of today’s baby boomers, nearing retirement can signal a long-awaited period of rest and relaxation. For others, it’s a time for reinvention, and a test of their limits.

Just ask Neal Schuster and Patrick Mulqueen, two Milwaukee baby boomers who have excelled in the Wisconsin Senior Games.

Schuster, 68, who competes in various events including the discus, hammer throw and pole vault, and Mulqueen, who’s a power lifter, show aging isn’t something to be apprehensive about — but instead something to be embraced.

Neal Schuster, 68, continues to stay active by participating in Senior Games competitions all around the country.

Neal Schuster, 68, continues to stay active by participating in Senior Games competitions all around the country.

As baby boomers, “we still think we’re young, but if you want to think you’re young, you’ve got to have your body as young as it can be,” says Schuster, who still coaches pole vaulting at a local high school, as well as fitness classes at an assisted living facility.

While Schuster has been competing in sports much of his adult life, Mulqueen, 69, began weightlifting just five years ago.

Drawn to the sport after attending a talk by a UnitedHealthcare representative at the senior housing complex where he lives, Mulqueen learned about the free SilverSneakers fitness program at his local YMCA available through his Medicare Advantage plan from UnitedHealthcare.

At the time, Mulqueen, who is 5-foot-7, weighed 240 pounds. He packed on the extra weight after retiring. “I was pretty much as wide as I was tall.”

He began attending SilverSneakers fitness classes twice a week and started watching what he ate, and ultimately dropped 75 pounds. It was around that time he also received instruction on other equipment available for use thanks to SilverSneakers, and began weightlifting.

The first year he competed in the Senior Games, he won a silver medal by bench-pressing 180 pounds. “It’s not whether I win anything,” Mulqueen says. “I strive to challenge myself.”

Staying active is an important goal for today’s baby boomers. A 2015 Gallup poll found that half of those respondents age 65 and older exercise at least 30 minutes a day, and do so at least three times a week.

“We care about our health. We’re not going to be defined by a number,” says Steve Nelson, chief executive officer of UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare and retirement business, a baby boomer himself who competes in Ironman triathlons.

But people shouldn’t wait till they reach middle age to become active. “The steps you take in your 30s, 40s and 50s dramatically influence how you feel in your 60s, 70s and 80s,” Nelson says, citing a strong correlation between someone’s fitness and their health care costs later in life.

Today’s baby boomers “are at a place where everything is about meaningful use of time,” Nelson says. “How can I remain healthier longer, have a high quality of life and high-quality interactions with my family?”

And that’s something UnitedHealthcare strives to encourage through programs such as SilverSneakers, disease management programs that help members manage their chronic conditions, and health management programs that provide information on self-care and lifestyle changes to help members remain healthy.

It’s important for health care professionals to ask, “How can we support these folks?” says Dr. Efrem Castillo, UnitedHealthcare’s chief medical officer.

Another important resource for Medicare Advantage members is its Renew by UnitedHealthcare program, which has three components. Through Renew Lifestyle, members are encouraged to make wellness part of their daily routine through the Renewmagazine, videos, recipes, quizzes and tips.

Additionally, Renew Learning offers free online courses, as well as articles, videos and interactive tools on topics such as preventive care, living with diabetes and well-being. Finally, through Renew Rewards, eligible members can earn rewards like gift cards to favorite retailers for completing an annual physical or wellness visit, as well as other health-related activities.

While many baby boomers are on the right track, there’s still much room for improvement. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37 percent of those age 60 and older are obese. And obesity can influence a whole host of conditions, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Diet is one cause for concern. “The typical American diet is pretty much junk. There’s too much processed food, too much canned food,” says Mulqueen, who took a class to learn about prediabetes in order to improve his own diet and health. “I’m so glad I did this.”

Exercise is another key component, says Schuster, who travels around the country with his wife, Sandra O’Brien, so they both can participate in state and national Senior Games competitions. They’ve been everywhere from Spokane, Washington, to Orlando, Florida, and the competitions serve as family vacations.

While he doesn’t jump as far or as high as he once did, now that he’s in his 60s, Schuster says he’s “more appreciative of being able to participate.”

He runs each day, does strength training four days a week, and takes part in the SilverSneakers program through UnitedHealthcare at his local fitness center. “There’s no excuse for not taking advantage of this,” he says.

But a baby boomer doesn’t have to become a hardcore athlete to get into shape. “People don’t necessarily have to do something competitive,” Schuster says. “Something as simple as walking, riding a bike or jogging can be a good starting point. You just have to make it a priority.”