Making waves at 91: Daily swims keep Nagel healthy and mentally sharp

By Deborah Storey | Living 50 Plus

Jack Nagel of Decatur has a simple explanation for why he’s still swimming in his 90s.

“For my health,” he said. “That’s why I’m 91.”

Get ready to feel guilty, you workout slackers.

This inspiring senior citizen swims 30-minute pool sessions at least five days a week.

Nagel has been swimming as part of a regular routine for at least 30 years, he said. That, of course, means he was already in his 60s when he started.

Feeling guilty yet?

Nagel’s history with swimming really started much earlier.

“I was about 5 years old,” Nagel said. “I took lessons and all that in public parks in Cincinnati. I always loved to swim. I swam a lot underwater.”

These days he is a fixture at Decatur’s Aquadome Recreation Center pool. Not only does he have a strict regular routine, but it’s in the early morning.

Nagel moved to north Alabama in 1983 and worked for then-Intergraph as a software engineer. He began swimming at the Decatur city pool a year or two later.

“At first I was doing probably a mile,” he said. “As the body grew tired” — he paused for a laugh — “I went to a half mile. (Now) I swim 30 minutes. I don’t count laps.”

If you’re not feeling guilty enough yet, understand that he gets up before dawn to start a workout before he goes to swim.

“I usually start (swimming) about a quarter to 7. Right now I get up at 5:30, then I do at least a half hour’s worth of exercises, limbering up, then I go to the pool and swim about 30 minutes.”

This senior isn’t just paddling around in the water. He’s doing actual laps.

“I do a breaststroke to start off with, and do the crawl coming back — or freestyle.”

Dawn McAfee coaches high school and youth recreation swim teams at the Aquadome and in the past has supervised lifeguards during the pool’s adult lap swim sessions. She said Nagel is an “inspiration.”

“Not many people, honestly, at his age are still active like he is,” McAfee said. “They’ll walk their dog maybe a block, but they won’t actually seek out exercise. They’ll do things that are more casual. Being at the pool at 6 in the morning is not casual.”

Nagel has a background in swimming as a member of the racing team in high school.

When he was growing up in Cincinnati, he lived close to his grandmother, and there was a public pool near her.

“I went about 10 o’clock when they opened and they had a tough time getting me back for dinner,” he said.

Nagel likes the Aquadome, but it can get crowded on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he said.

“I hope we get the other pool built before I get too old to use it,” he said with a chuckle.

Decatur leaders are planning to construct a new city recreation facility with part of the roughly $100 million settlement with 3M over chemical contamination that includes the Aquadome property. The replacement for the Aquadome will include a pool and be built at Wilson Morgan Park, about a mile from the current location.

Accommodating age

Nagel does have a bad shoulder that gives him some trouble. His arms also get a little sore after workouts.

“I use fins on my feet,” he said. “I never used to, but operations slowed me down.”

The swimming fins help him go a little faster and take some of the pressure off his arms, he explained. Fins designed for swimming are smaller than the huge ones that scuba divers use.

Swimming — or something — is clearly keeping Nagel mentally agile. He’s sharp and funny in conversation.

Although legally named John, he’s called Jack by family and friends. He gives an educational answer to clear up why he, like former President John Kennedy, is often called Jack.

“There was no Saint Jack,” he said. “If you were Catholic, you had to be named after a saint so John and Jack was synonymous.”

One of his doctors is impressed with Nagel, too, and told him “you’re going to live to be 100, maybe 102.”

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. Don’t stretch it too far, Doc,’” Nagel said with a laugh.

Like most people with a regular workout routine, Nagel can feel the soreness if he uses different muscle groups.

His wife likes to walk, and when he goes with her, “that sort of gets to me,” he said.

But he recommends swimming as an activity for seniors, whether they have a history with it or not.

“It’s a perfect exercise for older people because it doesn’t strain the body,” he said. “You just do the things that you can do.

“It takes a lot of stress off the bones. You’re not pounding your knees and your ankles.”

He has some advice for whippersnappers — say anyone in their 60s — who would like to start a swimming routine.

If you’re serious, don’t just ease into the pool and dog-paddle around.

“First of all, I’d get lessons on swimming,” he said. “That would be a good place to start if you’re not a good swimmer or a lap person. I’ve been a lap person for a long, long time.”

McAfee recommended seniors who have limited experience with swimming start out with water aerobics to get assimilated to the water, and they should also seek out instruction.

“I would say find a pool you can work in that has good instructors that’ll take time to talk to you and get you started,” she said. “Sometimes older people, and I mean anyone over 20, are afraid to ask for lessons because they’re embarrassed.”

Joint friendly

The AARP calls swimming a “smart choice because it is joint friendly.

“It gives us all the benefits of exercise without putting additional pressure on the knees, hips and spine,” according to an article on the AARP website. “The buoyancy that the water provides supports the body and reduces the effects of gravity, which reduces strain on our joints.”

Swimming can decrease fall risk, too, by working the upper body, core and lower body. The support of the water makes people feel more secure in practicing their balancing skills. Aids like pool noodles can help anyone who feels uneasy at first in the water.

Give your body time to adapt to a swim routine, suggested Debbie Jacobson, senior public relations strategist with Tivity Health. Try some exercises with the Silver Sneakers program to focus on strength and range of motion to decrease the chance of overuse injuries.

Even water walking is estimated to burn 500 calories an hour.

After swimming for decades, Nagel has a Zen-like attitude to the sport’s ability to clear your mind.

“When you swim, you’re not doing too much talking,” he said. “You have time to think about what you’re going to do that day and all that kind of stuff. It’s relaxing to me. It helps relax my body.

“Any chance I get, I swim.”

The Aquadome has dedicated times for lap swimming and water aerobics on weekdays and has a discounted rate of $25 quarterly for senior lap swimmers through the Healthy Lifestyles program. Go to for more information or call 256-341-4953.