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Exercise, nutrition, adaptability keys to longevity for Anne Springs Close

Charlotte Observer (NC)


April 15--FORT MILL, S.C. On a recent March morning, the temperature hovered around 40 degrees, and the sun barely peeked through the fog.

It wasn't the ideal Carolina day for a walk, but Anne Springs Close was eager to get outdoors on the greenway that bears her name.

"I had a German nanny," Close explained. "She told us we had to be outdoors if the sun was shining. If we weren't, it was sinful."

She repeats that childhood memory when anyone asks about her ambitious exercise regimen and her commitment to preserving natural habitats.

At 87, Close, matriarch of South Carolina's Springs textile family, still swims and walks nearly every day.

She has hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee about 40 times in the past 50 years and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro three times -- when she was 57, 73, and 78. She ran in the New York City marathon at 56, and went bungee jumping in New Zealand when she was 69.

For many years, she and a group of friends have taken weeklong bicycle trips, riding about 35 miles a day. They've gone around the world -- from Missouri and Pennsylvania to the Netherlands and Vietnam. This year, they're off to France.

Because of macular degeneration, Close has lost her central vision and can't read or recognize faces. So now she rides a tandem bike. But she doesn't use that as an excuse: "I work very hard. I don't want to be a freeloader."

She's a walking advertisement for the benefits of exercise.

"It has worked for me, that's all I can say."

What you can control

Not everyone who lives to be 87 is able to be as active as Anne Springs Close.

But we can all try, said Scott Gordon, chairman of the kinesiology department at UNC Charlotte.

"Some people just have good genes," he said. "But no matter what genes you have, you can always improve your quality of life, and likely lengthen your life, with good physical activity and proper diet."

Gordon, who has studied exercise and its effects on aging, said people who lead a healthy lifestyle "have a much better chance of staying engaged and enjoying their golden years."

Experts estimate that about half of age-related physical decline is part of the normal aging process and half is due to poor lifestyle habits.

"The good news is that lifestyle is something you can control... You can change the rate at which your body ages."

Change can start "at any time," Gordon said, and it doesn't have to mean climbing mountains.

"It doesn't have to be extreme, and it doesn't have to be in a gym," he said. "You may not be able to do what you used to, but doing something is better than nothing."

The Ironman Challenge

Close inspires by example.

In March, she finished the monthlong Ironman Challenge, sponsored by the recreation complex that's part of the 2,100-acre Anne Springs Close Greenway.

She's the oldest person to have completed the Ironman's three legs -- swimming, biking, running or walking -- during the 30-day period allowed. And she's the only one to have done it every year since the challenge began in 1994.

"The idea is to get people exercising," she said. "By the end of the month, you're supposed to be in the habit of exercising regularly."

This year, Close swam 2.5 miles in about 2 hours in the recreation complex pool. She rode 112 miles on her stationary bike and walked 26.2 miles on the greenway, all during the first two weeks of March.

Then she did it all again before the month ended.

Now her goal is to do the Ironman routine once a month for the rest of the year.

Many people have taken up the Ironman Challenge because of Close. Among them is Kenny Walker, who's been her driver for six years, since her eyesight began to fail.

Walker, 54, a former football, basketball and softball player, first tried the Ironman four years ago, but didn't complete all three legs. He has finished the last three years.

Because of Close, he's also been entering the 5K Springmaid Road Race every November in Fort Mill.

"When I did it for the first time, I walked it with her. Boy, that was a struggle," Walker said.

He's 6-foot-2 and weighs 275 pounds compared to Close's 5-foot-2 and 115 pounds.

"I kind of feel embarrassed, an 87-year-old lady doing way far more than I'm doing.?... A lot of people wouldn't exercise at that age. Sometimes I just wonder where she gets the energy."

Hiking Mount LeConte

Close passed her nanny's philosophy down to her eight children and jokes that she "gave them a guilt trip."

But Crandall Close Bowles, the oldest, said her mother never preached or tried to shame them into exercising.

She just exposed them to it.

Close's children and grandchildren starting going on hikes to Mount LeConte as soon as they were old enough, at 4 or 5.

But Bowles said her mother's example didn't stick with everyone.

In the early 1980s, a canoe trip on the New River took several hours longer than planned because they missed the North Carolina take-out point and ended up in Virginia. Bowles said one of her sons, who was 6 or 7 then, declared he "would rather be bitten by a snake than get back in a canoe."

Close just laughs about that day. "She doesn't pay attention to anybody complaining," Bowles said.

Now 65 and a senior citizen herself, Bowles admires her mother's ability to adapt as her body ages.

"She is just amazingly resilient," Bowles said. "Most people would feel tremendously handicapped (by not being able to see). ... She figures out ways to deal with things.?... She can swim without having to see, which is a blessing.

"She is very proud to be as fit as she is and very determined to maintain it."

Ready to walk

For her walk on that chilly March morning, Close dressed in typical garb -- blue jeans, running shoes, and a sleeveless fleece vest monogrammed with the name of the Anne Springs Close Greenway.

The corner of a red handkerchief flopped from her back pocket.

She explained: "A cowboy always has a kerchief."

Garloch: 704-358-5078


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