Lawrence couple stay young by being active

LAWRENCE — Joe Spradlin felt like he was in a scene from ''Smokey and the Bandit."

He was riding his bike in Florida, en route to St. Augustine, when a county sheriff's officer pulled him over.

' 'Where you from, boy?" the officer asked.

' 'Kansas," Joe replied.

' 'You rode all the way here from Kansas?" the officer asked.

' 'Worse," Joe replied. ''San Diego, California."

It was 1994, and Joe was in his mid-60s. Now 80, he and his 79-year-old wife, Rita, continue to make fitness part of their regular routines. Joe bikes 20 to 30 miles a day, and Rita walks 4 to 6 miles a day.

' 'We're both exercise nuts," Joe said.

The Spradlins have been married for 61 years and have lived in Lawrence for the past 15 years.

Before he retired in 1995 from the Bureau of Child Research, now the Institute for Lifespan Studies at the University of Kansas, Joe rode his bike to work when the weather allowed. During winter he was restricted to riding on the weekends. Chopping firewood was his only other source of exercise.

Beyond physical conditioning and the ability to eat and drink more, Joe sees real benefits from his love of riding.

' 'I don't need Zoloft or Prozac," he said. ''Biking is very good for my mental health. And I notice that when I don't bike, I become a little bit more irritable, lay around more and just (have) minor symptoms of depression."

Rita, who has been diagnosed with coronary artery disease, suffered two heart attacks and underwent her first of two bypass surgeries in 1985. Three days a week, she meets the Jabber Walkers at the Lied Center to walk three to four miles on the KU campus. The group of women has developed a close bond and often travel together, including a trip to Paris.

When she's not on campus, Rita walks 6 miles through her neighborhood. She plans to incorporate weight-lifting back into her regular routine now that her fractured back is healed from an injury she sustained while doing abdominal crunches.

Rita said she enjoys the ''beautiful scenery, wildlife and various flowers and trees" along her route.

' 'Another benefit of walking is that it keeps the hips slim, in addition to strengthening your bones and making you feel good," she said.

Joe enjoys riding the scenic river road toward Lecompton and often stops at the home of Randy and Barbara Schwering for coffee and good conversation.

Randy Schwering described Joe as a fixture in the neighborhood, and his love of cycling has earned him the nickname ''Ironman Joe."

' 'Joe is an inspiration to me," Schwering said. ''He inspires me to stay in shape. He is a living testament of how you do it."

Beyond exercising, the Spradlins spend their time gardening, reading and traveling. Rita also enjoys volunteering for multiple organizations, including Meals on Wheels, community theater and the Lied Center.

' 'I think that's one reason why I always feel so well because I love to be out in the public, and I love to volunteer," Rita says. ''I think my involvement with other people has kept me healthier."