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Athletic inspirations of 82 and 92 keep on moving

Evelyn Stewart, 82, is backlit by a rainbow at a workout on the track at Buchanan Middle School in Tampa. She ran the 1979 Gasparilla 5K and never looked back.
Evelyn Stewart, 82, is backlit by a rainbow at a workout on the track at Buchanan Middle School in Tampa. She ran the 1979 Gasparilla 5K and never looked back.
Published May 28, 2014

Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving. To stay healthy.

To keep your weight down.

To strengthen your heart.

Keep that body movin'.

That seems to be a constant in the countless theories on how to lose weight and stay fit.

Last year, a research project conducted by Ball State University and several Swedish researchers found that older people who exercise regularly have the same aerobic capacity as folks half their age.

"Eighty is the new 40," said the study's lead author, Scott Trappe, director of Ball State's Human Performance Laboratory.

"These athletes are not who we think of when we consider 80-year-olds because they are in fantastic shape. They are simply incredible, happy people who enjoy life and are living it to the fullest. They are still actively engaged in competitive events."

This year, the Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging released quality-of-life findings based on a four-year study of the activity level of more than 300 older adults. While this study was more about staying active than exercising strenuously, its findings mirrored those at Ball State. Stay active and you'll have a better life.

Heard this all before? Believe it. Listen to two exceptional Tampa Bay athletes who validate what the experts say, what the studies find, what your mother (or your kids) told you.

You got to move it, move it.

With vim and vigor

Most Saturday mornings, the tennis courts at Puryear Park in St. Petersburg are packed with older guys chasing around balls with rackets. The men come in all sizes and shapes.

But one stands out. He's muscular and tan, his legs bowed ever so slightly like those good-looking legs on athletic dudes. He wears shorts and a vest, a baseball cap. He keeps his eye on the ball, hitting it every time without expending unnecessary energy. A tennis veteran.

It's hard to tell how old he is from the sidelines, but he looks like he's in his 50s, one of the younger players in the three-days-a-week drop-in league that has been in existence in varying form and number for 25 years. (There are no rules; you come, you get in, said Dave Dittman, 61, a retired fireman from Connecticut and one of the league's founding members.)

As the tan, muscular guy leaves the court after winning a doubles set, he looks a little older but not much. He moves with a youthful swagger.

When he gets to the sideline, not a bit winded, Vincent DiFilippo, a retired engineering data analyst originally from Jersey City, N.J., sits down on the bench and introduces himself.

His age? 92.

His secret? "Keep moving, regularly. I have to slow down now and then, but not for long.

"The doctor says I should walk every day,'' he said. "The only thing that stops me sometimes is my right knee.

"But we always try to look at the pleasant side of things even when bad things happen. Giving up is no good at all," he said, looking out across the court at the men still playing. He and his wife, Virginia, have been married for 59 years. They have two grown children.

He eats healthy, too. He has been a vegetarian — actually, a flexitarian because he does on rare occasion eat chicken, turkey or fish — for 40 years. He walks every day even if it's only around the inside of a grocery store to buy the supplies to make his go-to meal, vegetarian soup.

That doesn't mean he denies himself life's little pleasures. He admits to eating plenty of ice cream and cake.

The youngest in the Puryear pickup league is 29-year-old Matthew Giba. He said he was invited to play with the gang about five years ago when he came to the courts by himself to hit some balls at the wall. No slackers here, he found out.

In fact, he likes when he and the oldest player in the league team up in doubles matches. He doesn't have to worry that his partner won't take care of his half of the court.

"Vinny hangs with me all the time," he said.

From heels to running shoes

More than 35 years ago, Evelyn Stewart's son, Bruce, convinced her she could be a runner.

It's not as if she wasn't already in great shape. As owner of a casting and model agency, it was important in her line of work. She began modeling when she was 17. She was a member of the Screen Actors Guild. She had been the fashion coordinator and ran a charm school for area Montgomery Ward stores before they closed.

And, she was the mother of three children for whom she wanted to be a healthy role model.

When her son wanted her to run in the 1979 Gasparilla 5K, she thought she'd better start training. Her biggest problem, she said, was that "I had worn high heels for so long that when I ran, my feet would get cramps."

So she ran around the pool in her back yard. Around and around the perimeter until her feet stopped complaining when her toes weren't downhill from her heels.

"I finally said, 'I think I can go out the gate,' " said the now-82-year-old Tampa runner.

She didn't do very well that first race — but she did finish, and set out to do better.

Stewart began to run in the mornings at 6:30. When she worked up to 2 miles a day, her son told her, "If you can do 2 miles, you can do 3 miles."

And she did.

This year, she ran the Gasparilla 5K in 24 minutes and 12 hundredths of a second. She won her age group by more than 8 minutes. In fact, the oldest woman to better her time was 20 years younger, in the 60-64 age group.

There's no doubting her competitive nature. "Two years ago, I did it in 24 minutes," she said. "The last couple years, I didn't want anybody at 82 to beat me. One woman comes close, but she always comes in behind me."

She exercises at the gym four or five days a week, sometimes for an hour, sometimes two — and really pushes herself to the limit. She takes high-energy aerobics classes: Zumba and Cardio Tai Boxing; Belly, Butt and Thighs; and Bosu Boot Camp. Her favorite is the Bodyweb class, in which she uses her own strength and body weight to do Spider-Man-like moves with straps and ropes that hang from the walls.

Her reward? Wearing a size 2 dress that her husband, Raymond, bought her for Mother's Day.

"I live in a retirement community; I see how important it is for people to get out — because they get old if they don't get out and do something.

"There shouldn't be one day that you don't exercise …unless you're bedridden. And even then, you can sit on the side of the bed and move your arms and legs," she said.

"It's amazing what you can make your body do, no matter what age you are. If you don't exercise, get your body in tone, make sure your balance is good, you lose the ability to handle life. It makes you mentally alert, too."

Stewart's exercise ethic is paying off not only for her but for her grown children.

"We're going to be just like you when we get older," they tell her all the time.

Just what a mom wants to hear.


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