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In search of that elusive fountain of youth

Once upon a time, life was pretty much over once you reached age 60. The only things that seemed to matter were retirement, more doctor visits and — if you weren't exhausted — a midmorning game of shuffleboard. However, if you've arrived at the post-60 milestone, don't fret. Word on the street is you're the new 45!

You may ask who came up with this ridiculous idea. I believe I read about the supposed anti-aging phenomenon on the Internet, so it's got to be true, right? That said, many well-known celebrities who are well into their 60s have found exercise, healthy living and a hefty dose of plastic surgery as the road to great looks and continued fame atop the box office charts.

We are constantly bombarded with advertising that leads us to believe that a fountain of youth is as close as the next libido pill or 25-minute exercise video. A Nielsen survey found that most people consider their 60s to be the new middle age. And with each new year comes a barrage of TV, radio and Internet commercials telling us it's never too late to get in shape, look younger and live life to its fullest.

Facing geezer-hood, having just turned 63, persuaded me to reach for a sip from that elusive fountain.

I tipped the scales at 210, was feeling sluggish and worn out and lacked focus. After successfully completing a rigorous 44 radiation treatments for prostate cancer, I figured it was time to either listen to my body's cries for help or fall prey to a lifelong dependence on expensive prescription pills that would ensure my first-class reservation at an old folks' home.

Myriad choices await those seeking salvation through exercise. Could weight training do the trick? How about Zumba, the sizzling aerobic sensation? Spinning classes are supposed to be effective at burning calories and resetting your biological clock. According to the advertisements for all the exercise methods, all I need is time, effort and a credit card.

"But not so fast, old codger," I said as I pounded my virile yet flabby chest. I need to do some pre-exercise homework first before plunging in.

I started my mission by quietly slipping into a local body building gym near my job. There, I met with Doug Jack, an old friend who is a nutritionist and a former personal trainer. I asked him about weight training and what it could do for an over-the-hill guy like me.

"If you want to look and feel better, make better choices," Doug said. "Hydrate, change your eating habits and exercise. And most important, get plenty of rest."

Still not fully convinced, I had him take me on a weight lifting session to see if pumping steel was for me, or if I was just an Arnold Schwarzenegger wanna-be. As painful as it was for my old bones, I got through the workout. But as I stumbled out of the gym, my body felt as if it had been savaged in a torture chamber designed by famed escape artist Harry Houdini.

Not being a quitter, and after a couple of days off to rest my weary body, I tried out a South Tampa spinning class that was aptly named "Ryde for Life." Jessica Fant, the owner of Ryde for Life studio and chief taskmaster, was gracious enough to welcome me to the world of high-intensity stationary bike spinning.

At my first session, I felt like the grandfather in a class of extremely fit 20-year-olds. Before my ride, Jessica explained the benefits.

"An average spin class allows you to burn between 400 and 600 calories," she said. Spinning also can build muscle tone, relieve stress and increase cardiovascular endurance. After barely 30 minutes of nonstop pedaling to the sounds of hard-driving techno music, my legs felt like overcooked spaghetti. I lay in bed the rest of the day, thinking I hadn't endured that much pain since Army boot camp in 1969.

Finally, I wanted to find out how dancing to rhythmic hip-hop and Latin music could improve my health. I found a free Zumba class held weekly at Curtis Hixon Park in downtown Tampa. Though I felt a little awkward, the hip shaking and side-to-side movements were fun. The high energy that came from Zumba was infectious, and it was a great workout.

As I reflect on my wellness adventure, I found all three types of exercise to be dynamic, challenging and taxing mentally and physically. I realized that no matter what your age or occupation, there isn't one magic ticket to longevity. I decided to do them all again, change my diet and keep on smiling.

Postscript: After one month, which included these vigorous exercises and better eating habits, I lost 8 pounds. Today, I'm feeling great, and, most importantly, I'm still cancer free.

Mike Merino is a 63-year-old veteran, a part-time writer and a lifelong Tampa resident. He works in the spinal cord injury center at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.