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Last modified: Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Monica Ullmann: Move it or lose it

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Monica Ullmann takes a brief rest while swimming laps at the IU Outdoor Pool.

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Monica Ullmann doesn't need a master's degree to know that physical activity is a vital component of aging well. Her nimble gate, powerful muscles and joy (some would say dominance) in the lap pool are daily reminders of the benefits she's gained from a lifetime of physical activity and a more recent devotion to swimming.

At 78, however, the Norwegian attorney and real-estate broker is pursuing a master's degree. She is studying sport medicine in order to bolster her case to others that baby boomers and older folks really need to get moving -- on a daily basis -- if their quality of life is important to them.

"Thirty minutes a day, it isn't enough," Ullmann said recently after swimming a mile in Indiana University's Outdoor Pool. "You need an hour. You must do it every day, or five days a week. A brisk walk, gardening, playing with children. It can be everyday activities. But you need to move."

Research, she said, has shown that physical activity helps people lower their risks for such conditions as heart disease, depression, some cancers and osteoporosis. Plus, "you'll always feel better," she added.

She should know. A physical education teacher before becoming an attorney at 50, Ullmann has always been active, combining skiing, hunting, jogging, strength training and other activities into her workaholic lifestyle, despite suffering from arthritis. When nearly 60, Ullmann took up competitive swimming while in Florida, where she spends several months a year and continues to sell real estate. Smitten with the sport, she shared her enthusiasm with Norway's national swimming association and is credited with bringing competitive adult swimming, better known as Masters Swimming, to Norway.

"They call me Grandma Masters," Ullmann said.

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Monica Ullmann swims a lap at the IU Outdoor Pool.

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Ullmann has won 48 Norwegian Masters championships and nearly a dozen Scandinavian and European medals. She looks the picture of health, which makes it hard to believe she has struggled with such serious and life-threatening health conditions as breast cancer, arthritis and stroke. In the last year alone, Ullmann had a knee replaced, foot surgery and a stroke. She literally inspired a nation almost 20 years ago when she competed in a Norwegian championship just three months after having a mastectomy. Now, she is training for the 2008 world championships in Australia.

Ullmann, who is well known in Norway for her swimming feats, knows of what she speaks when she talks about the importance of strong muscles and an active lifestyle as one ages and encounters life's ups and downs. She plans to combine this firsthand experience with her studies to create research-based presentations on various health topics, such as arthritis, about which she and her "knees" also are writing a book. Ullmann spent part of her summer at IU's Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming (see: as a visiting scholar, reveling in the "milieu" of exercise physiology research and swimming daily with the local Masters swim club. One of the ongoing research projects at the Counsilman Center involves Masters swimmers. Researchers are studying the effects of long-term participation in vigorous activity on "optimal aging." (See:

Here are some of Ullmann's top recommendations:

  • Get moving. Swimming, cycling, walking, deep water exercise and gardening -- the options are endless. When walking, she suggests adding some hops and jumps to help strengthen the bones. Think of activities you enjoyed when younger and try to do them again. (See:
  • Hire a trainer, if possible, although Ullmann notes that a brisk walk is free. A good trainer can help adapt exercises and activities to accommodate any limitations.
  • Consider strength training. (She tries to get in two to three workouts a week.) Strong leg muscles are important for walking. Strength training also is good for posture.
  • Practice your balance. (See: Ullmann has a balance cushion that she uses regularly.