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February 10, 2014

Who says 60 is too old to figure skate? The sport offers health benefits, but be careful.

For most people near age 50, ice is a source of peril, a sure fall and maybe even broken bones. The idea that someone approaching 60 and even past 70 could not just step on ice intentionally but do so in figure skates (kind of like knife edges strapped to boots), with plans to master difficult moves and perhaps train for competitions - even if not the  Olympics - may sound crazy.

But it isn't to older skaters like me. I'm 60 and have been figure skating for the past nine years. I skated in grade school, watching in awe at the skaters on center ice, trying to copy what they did. I never perfected my spins and jumps back then, and I hung up my skates. Now I try to get on the ice three to four times a week; many of my skating pals of similar age train more often than that. We skate before work, after work, on lunch hours, on weekends, whenever we can find time. We train off the ice with weights, Pilates, ballet, ballroom dancing, anything to improve strength and flexibility. We put in long practice hours, travel to competitions, and, yes, even glue sequins to costumes.

Of the 600 skaters expected to participate in U.S. Figure Skating's adult championships in April, nearly 350 will be older than 40. The oldest member of the DC Edge Synchronized Skating Teams open group is Jacquie Tennant, age 74, of Potomac, Md. In December she helped her team place third at a synchronized skating competition in Ann Arbor, Mich. Tennant, who used to skate with the show Holiday on Ice, says belonging to the team helps her relax and keep her muscles strong. "I'm thankful that I can be physically active enough to get the fullness out of life," she says.

Even if you have no intention of mastering a double toe-loop, figure skating offers tremendous health benefits and isn't as hard as you might think. Though, yes, you do have to be careful.

Personal trainer Joan Pagano, author of "Strength Training Exercises for Women," who returned to ice skating in her 40s, says skating strengthens lower leg muscles, including glutes, hip adductors and abductors, hamstrings, quads, calves and ankles. Skating also strengthens core muscles, which help maintain proper alignment of the torso, and improves balance.

Because skating is a weight-bearing exercise, ice time helps keeps bones strong. I've gained bone mineral density in my hips over the past few years. And, women of a certain age may want to note, here's the best part of enjoying a sport done in chilly temperatures: Hot flashes? Exercise is supposed to ease symptoms of menopause, but even if you're having a hot flash, you probably won't feel it on the ice.

Skating also burns significant calories, as many as 400 per hour. And skating is low-impact, "as long as you don't fall down," Pagano says.

Those who skate outdoors get a nice dose of fresh air, and natural light delivers Vitamin D and can help fight seasonal depression.

Working to master the elements of figure skating can boost confidence and self-esteem, says Jack Lesyk, director of the Ohio Center for Sport Psychology. Speaking from personal experience (Lesyk took up running at age 40 and went on to compete in marathons), he says that pushing to achieve a personal best in any activity, at any age, means a lot, and it's far better than sitting around doing nothing.

Of course, figure skating does carry the risk of serious injury. Falls can come without warning, even for experienced skaters. In 2005, I broke both of my wrists while trying an ice dance. Seven months later, I was in a workshop trying a difficult turn. I stepped on my blade, fell and broke my left wrist. Both times, I was back on the ice as soon as my casts came off.

Heidi Prather, a professor of orthopedic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, sees adult recreational skaters and such performers as ice dancers. Of the skating-related ailments she treats, overuse injuries such as tendinitis in the knee, hip and ankle are more common than broken bones. Other reasons that adult skaters seek help from an orthopedic specialist are ankle and foot disorders related to poorly fitting boots, hip pain, low-back pain, knee pain and bursitis, she says.

Lynette Khoo-Summers, a physical therapist at Washington University School of Medicine who treats performers, encourages people who want to try ice skating to start slowly. The better shape you are in when you begin, the easier skating will be, says Kat Arbour, an expert in biomechanics who develops off-ice programs for figure skaters in Boston.

Although most of Arbour's clients are teens competing at the national and international-levels, she also works with recreational and competitive skaters in the 40-plus set, and has even helped skaters in their 80s. "I worked with them off-ice on balance, strength, flexibility - all great things for their skating and for their quality of life off of the ice," says Arbour, who recently developed an online training program. Arbour recommends starting with once-a-week sessions and says not to be surprised if your muscles are sore.

As for equipment, forget about the double-runner blades. ("They feel really weird," Arbour says.) Go with a known boot brand and choose a softer boot to get started. You can switch to a stiff boot once you start increasing your skill level. If you are worried about falls, wear kneepads, wrist guards and a helmet.

Since breaking my wrists, I wear kneepads and wrist guards and attend an ice aerobics class (all of my classmates are older than 40) that involves a lot of fast skating and moving squats. I also work out off the ice.

For me, the hardest part of turning 60 a few months ago was that I see these milestone birthdays (and turning 60 brought a big "yikes!") as a time to look back on what I've failed to accomplish. With skating, I worried that I'd never master the ice dances I need for the next level. Adult skaters go through rough patches, injuries and discouraging, maddening training sessions, but we don't stay down long. To get past those spots, I think about why skating is my passion: the camaraderie; the mental boost after improving, even a little bit, a demanding move; and the fact that I'm much fitter and much stronger than I was 35 years ago.

I hope to be like lawyer Cheryl Zeleznak, age 61, of Palos Park, Ill., who has been competing on the national level for more than 15 years.

Zeleznak started skating in the 1980s. She told her instructor that she wanted to jump and spin, and fly through the air, the faster the better. "The instructor looked at me like I was from outer space," says Zeleznak, who indeed learned to spin and to jump well enough to perfect an axel and a double Salchow.

In most freestyle categories, skaters are stratified by age, but in solo ice dance, skaters of all ages can sometimes compete against one another. A few years ago, Zeleznak placed second nationally in U.S. Figure Skating's adult championships, the largest competition for adult amateurs.

"When you step off of the ice after competing," Zeleznak says, "it's all about the skate, and no matter how well you did, you can say, 'I did that.' "

I know exactly how she feels.

 

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