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Tai chi, biking and kayaking keep 90-year-old going

By Elaine Markowitz

Times Correspondent


Matt Heaphy says he has energy to burn and he is busy burning it — on a bike, in a kayak, on a pontoon boat or in a tai chi class.

Having celebrated his 90th birthday last week, Heaphy regularly astounds younger folks by the amount of exercise he does daily.

"I can't be a couch potato," he said. "Once you get into exercise, you just keep doing it."

This year, trying to avoid knee replacement, Heaphy has given up his daily 4-mile walks and on doctor's orders has cut back on his daily 16-mile bike ride. He was told to stop biking altogether.

"Don't tell me I can't ride my bike," he told his doctor. "That's like telling a fish he can't swim."

As a compromise, Heaphy, who has two mountain bikes and one road bike mounted on the garage wall, recently purchased a recumbent bicycle, which he said feels better on his knees. He rides it 10 miles a day, seven days a week.

"Once you start cycling you can't stop it," he said. "It feels like something is missing from your day."

Heaphy, a World War II veteran and former toolmaker for the aerospace industry, led a physically active life in his native New York and he hasn't stopped in retirement.

"I was a Depression kid and my family didn't own a car," he said.

"We rode our bikes everywhere."

With a tent and a rucksack attached to his bike, a young Heaphy and a couple of his friends once rode 118 miles from Brooklyn to Montauk Point on Long Island to camp out. It took them three days to get there.

"We were kids," he said. "We didn't think anything of it."

Biking wasn't the only activity in his youth and it isn't now. Heaphy, a certified scuba diver, also sailed, hiked, went canoeing and walked.

"I walked all my life," he said. "While I still worked, I walked at night or on weekends."

Boating has been an integral part of Heaphy's life in Palm Harbor, where he moved in 2004 with his wife, Kathleen, who died in 2011. He owns two kayaks and a truck with a large bed for transporting them.

Twice a month, he and a group of residents from his Highland Lake community go kayaking in different places. They've been on the Anclote and Weeki Wachee rivers, Lake Tarpon and the Gulf of Mexico. Then, three times a month, he takes 10 friends from his community around Lake Tarpon on a 24-foot pontoon boat.

Even though that sounds like enough to keep anyone busy, Heaphy enrolled in a tai chi class after a friend told him about it. He continues to attend class one morning a week at the Taoist Tai Chi Center in Dunedin.

"I have a lot of energy," he said. "I don't feel any soreness after doing tai chi."

That energy is apparent in a lively mind as well as body. The nonagenarian, who once read 70 bound books a year, remains an avid reader — on his Kindle. He now downloads his favorite books, those dealing with ancient history. Currently he is a reading a book on the history of the Roman Empire.

"If you read history, you know what the future will be," he said. "We're making the same mistakes now that the Roman Empire made."

And there's more. In the back of his home, Heaphy converted a Florida room to a workshop for woodworking, an activity he took up in 1980.

Relief and chip carvings, some dyed in muted colors and others sanded in their nature colors, dot the walls of his home alongside his late wife's oil paintings. On shelves in the workshop stand intricately carved animals and figurines. Dangling from the shelves are award ribbons for his woodworkings.

Even though he's had his share of sorrow — his oldest daughter died of cancer at age 33 and his wife suffered from dementia for 13 years before she died — Heaphy perseveres. His active lifestyle, his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, as well as a daily multi-vitamin and a newly acquired habit of eating less at each meal, keep him going.

"My doctor said I'll reach 100," Heaphy said, "but unless I'm in very good shape I don't really want to live that long."

Elaine Markowitz can be reached at

Get moving

There are many ways to stay in shape — and have fun doing it — after 50. You'll find programs like these in the area:

Creative Exercise: A toning, stretching, laughing, dancing, "I feel good" class with lively music. Designed for 50 and older. Mondays and Fridays. $3, $16 per month. 10:15 a.m., Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, 1101 Country Club Way S, St. Petersburg. (727) 893-7326.

Ageless Grace: A chair-based exercise group that addresses balance, cognitive function, joint mobility, spinal flexibility, systemic stimulation, right-left brain coordination and confidence. $3-$4. Dr. William E. Hale Senior Activity Center, 330 Douglas Ave., Dunedin. (727) 298-3299.

Let's Move: Anyone age 50 or older can join in on themed one-mile walk with a warm-up session, complimentary snacks, music and health discussions. $5 first time, additional events free. 8:30 a.m., Oaks at Riverview Senior Center, 101 E Kirby St., Tampa.

Find more programs daily in calendar listings or in Things to Do at

Q&A with Matt Heaphy

What do you know now at age 90 that you wish you had known when you were 20?

At age 20, like most kids, I didn't have a lot of sense, but I was in the service and all I thought about was surviving.

The world has changed a lot in your lifetime. In what way has it changed for the better? For the worse?

I think the world has changed for the worst. We have so many religious wars and we all have the same God. We just worship him in different ways.

What has been the biggest thrill of your life?

My greatest thrill has been raising a family. We raised three children and I have 10 grandchildren and great-grandchildren combined.

What has been your biggest regret in your life?

I've pretty much done everything I wanted to in life but jump out of an airplane. I wanted to be a parachuter but my eyesight wasn't good enough.

If you could give young people one piece of advice, what would it be?

Exercise and take responsibility for your actions.

What's left on your bucket list?

I am an ancient history buff and I'd like to see China and Turkey if I had the chance.

Tai chi, biking and kayaking keep 90-year-old going 06/25/13 [Last modified: Friday, June 21, 2013 6:03pm]
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