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Could this be the fittest generation? Add to ...

They jogged through the late seventies, aerobicized in the eighties, and sweated for every fitness fad from Tae Bo to the ThighMaster.

Now on the eve of their golden years, could this be the most active generation of 50-year-olds Canada has ever seen?

Health experts are anticipating the definitive answer early next year, when Statistics Canada releases fitness data from a project called the Canadian Health Measures Survey, the most comprehensive study ever to look at fitness levels among Canadians of all ages.

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But anecdotal evidence suggests that aging baby boomers - people born between 1946 and 1964 who account for close to one-third of the country's 32 million people - are continuing to sweat past the age when their parents took up gardening.

A record-high 28,292 competitors are competing next week at the World Masters Games in Australia, a multi-sport event that happens every four years. Roughly half of those competitors are age 50 and older. And they include more than 2,000 Canadians - the largest contingent from any of the 95 other visiting countries.

This fall, to accommodate the explosion of older adults taking up distance running, the Running Room introduced Boomer-only running clinics: a kinder, gentler version of its regular 10K and half-marathon clinics. Since 1995, the company has seen an 8 per cent annual increase in the number of 50-plus runners participating in its half-marathon clinics.

And industry watchers report that the 50-plus crowd is the fastest growing segment of the health club market - which is one reason why the fitness chain, Curves, has catapulted to success. The women-only gym, which caters mostly to women over 35, is now among the top 10 largest franchises in the United States.



Are you 50 and fit? Have you become fitter over the years or has it gone the other way? Share your experiences

Fitness experts say boomers are fashioning a new approach to exercise. The idea is to stop focusing on being "hot" and zero in on long-term heath. The attitude is based on a growing awareness that regular exercise is associated with significant risk reductions for conditions including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, several cancers including breast cancer, and mental-health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

"It's all about quality of life," says Colin Milner, head of the International Council on Active Aging, based in Vancouver. "At some stage you come to realize that instead of having another facelift or filling in more wrinkles, I've got to actually take care of my diabetes. Or my heart health."

But whether these high levels physical activity during leisure time is creating a super-fit generation of middle-aged Canadians remains to be seen, notes Mark Tremblay, one of Canada's leading physical-activity researchers.

The modern idea of physical activity centres around structured blocks of exercise time: 30 minutes on the treadmill, for example, or a couple tennis games on the weekend. In the past, physical activity was part of daily living, notes Dr. Tremblay, who is director of the Obesity Research Group at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario.

"If I look at my parents, their world was very different," says Dr. Tremblay, who is in his early 50s. "There's no question that I do more leisure-time activity than my father ever did. But he, on day-to-day basis, burned way more calories through his work, through active transportation, and the types of chores that he had to do."

That's one reason why the Canadian Health Measures Survey will be so enlightening, notes Dr. Tremblay, who lead the four-year study for Statistics Canada. Previous studies on physical-activity levels have indicated that Canadians are becoming more active than previous generations - however, they relied on less-reliable data-collection methods such as surveys and self-reports, where people tend to exaggerate. The CHMS study, on the other hand, has taken concrete measurements including blood pressure, aerobic fitness, blood-sugar levels and strength measurements from a representative sample of Canadians ages six to 78.

The study will not only give a more accurate measure of the fitness levels of Canadians, it will be a crystal ball into the future. How healthy the boomers are today is a sign of how crowded Canadian hospitals will be in 20 years when the giant cohort reaches their 70s and 80s and their bodies start breaking down quickly - or not so quickly, in the case of those who've stayed active.

"We have the baby boomers reaching retirement age and they're a very health-conscious group," Dr. Tremblay says. "It will be interesting to be able to reflect and say, hmm, when you measure things really carefully, based on a representative sample of Canadians, this is the story it tells."

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