A sport for life

Story and photos by Leigh Walsh

Raymond Haeckel, 73, is not one to sit back and let aging get the better of him. As he sits in the George S. Eccles Tennis Center in Salt Lake City, waiting for his practice partners to arrive, he reflects on the game of tennis and how it keeps him young.

“Tennis helps me age,” Haeckel said. “I feel my balance is better, I am more mobile and I can walk more briskly. Some people my age that don’t exercise have problems with simple tasks.”

Haeckel is determined to remain active and delay the inevitable aging process as long as possible. He credits his great quality of life and ability to be self-sufficient on his physically active lifestyle.

Raymond Haeckel, 73, prepares to return a shot during a tennis game at George S. Eccles Tennis Center.

Janet M. Shaw is an associate professor at the University of Utah who teaches courses specifically related to aging and exercise. Shaw said staying physically independent is an American ideal that we have as we get older.

“One of the goals of successful aging for most people is to be able to do things for themselves,” Shaw said.

Haeckel retired in 2002 from his job as the executive director of government, community and public relations at the University of Utah. At first he wasn’t too sure what he would do with all the hours in a day.

“I’m an anxious person. When I retired I didn’t have to deal with deadlines, and the fast tempo that I was used to had begun to slow down,” Haeckel said.

He knew he needed a plan, and one thing he was sure of was a portion of his time would be set aside to play some tennis.

Haeckel has made some lifelong friendships through the game of tennis. He meets with friends at least three times a week to play the sport they all share a common interest in. As Haeckel’s tennis buddies begin to stream in the door for today’s game, it is easy to see why he takes pleasure in these get-togethers.

Klaus Schmitt stands at the net during his doubles game at the George S. Eccles Tennis Center.

Klaus Schmitt has been playing tennis with Haeckel since the early 1960s. He shares Haeckel’s views on the role of tennis in his own life.

“Being physically active improves the quality of everything in my life,” he said.

Schmitt, a professor in mathematics, loves to travel but there is one catch: “I will travel everywhere as long as I can take my tennis racket with me,” Schmitt said with a smile.

Both men reflect on memories of playing on the old campus courts where the new biology building sits today.

“We used to play daily with our shirts off at high noon,” Haeckel recalled with a gleam in his eye.

Haeckel and Schmitt appear to be the exception and not the rule when it comes to older adults and exercise. Inactivity in the older adult population is a major problem today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the loss of strength and stamina attributed to aging is in part caused by reduced physical activity. By age 75, about one in three men and one in two women engage in no physical activity whatsoever.

Experts claim physical activity over the course of one’s life is of most benefit to an individual but it is never too late to start. Janet Shaw said physical activity is very important right now because there are lots of baby boomers in their early 60s who are still functional.

“Now is the time to capitalize on it and ask: How do I get into a routine of really helpful physical activity that I can continue as I get older?” Shaw said.

It can be difficult for older adults to begin exercise programs, especially when they haven’t been active for much of their lives. Recommendations can be made but the decision ultimately lies with the individual involved. Shaw emphasized the importance of enlisting help from a professional or a physically active friend for those people foreign to exercise.

“You have got to get people into it very slowly in a way that is very safe to them,” she said.

A major problem among the aging community is the increase in the number of fatalities due to falls. According to the CDC, in 2005, a total of 15,800 people aged 65 years and older died from injuries related to falls. An additional 1.8 million were treated in emergency departments for nonfatal injuries from falls.

According to the CDC, physical activity can be a good preventative measure to help limit the number of falls in older adults. Shaw recommends activities good for muscle strength and power in relation to helping balance.

“Catching oneself really requires that people be able to move quickly, and have a certain amount of strength to be able to hold up their own body weight,” Shaw said.

Haeckel and Schmitt are determined to postpone the aging process. “If I go two days without exercise I feel sluggish,” Haeckel said. “I enjoy having a good quality of life. I need one if I want to keep up with the grandkids,” he added.

The women they are playing tennis with find it funny Haeckel and Schmitt are being interviewed for an aging article. “You’re interviewing these two young guys?” they ask. Maybe they have a point. After all, you are only as old as you feel.