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The alarm wakes Fred Kasch on the cranberry farm in Warrens where he's stalked deer with a longbow since the 1940s. The 87-year-old lies on his back in the still-dark cabin and begins the first of 100 curl-ups as his younger hunting companions struggle to open their eyes.
Kasch circles his arms and stretches them. He kicks his right leg across his body to touch his outstretched left hand 10 times in an exercise he calls "the wringer." He arches his back 50 times slowly, then 10 times rapidly, and follows with 10 more wringers. Then he rolls out of bed, steps outside to a piece of wood wedged between two branches to create a makeshift chin-up bar, jumps to grab the bar, and pulls his 5 foot 7, 135-pound frame up half a dozen times.
"I do it every day whether I'm here or down there," says Kasch, referring to his Lake Geneva home. "I try to stay in condition to hunt and the hunting helps keep me in some kind of condition."
Kasch has found a fountain of youth in aerobic, strengthening and flexibility exercises. At an age most American men never see, let alone enjoy in good health, Fred Kasch hunts the way he wants to hunt – the traditional way, with equipment he makes. He also skis, body surfs, dances and drives his car cross-country like a man 30 years his junior.
There's a method to his fitness, says Kasch. Despite coming from a nonathletic family, Kasch got plenty of exercise in those days before television and radio. He ran around with the neighborhood kids, played basketball, football and baseball, and discovered the joys of adrenaline and the ability to eat whatever he wanted. He married that with a love of the outdoors through adventures at a Boy Scout camp in Michigan's lower Peninsula. Every year the scouts were sent off in pairs to fend for themselves for one night, an experience that helped him develop an absolute comfort with the woods. "I'm kind of related to the woods," he says.
"From the time I was 10 or 12 years old, it was plain logical to me: Exercise and a healthy lifestyle made for good health."
Kasch has been consumed by a lifelong quest to investigate and document that long-ago hunch. It was a maverick pursuit in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s, when medical science didn't well understand the health benefits of exercise and society disdained fitness as the purview of dumb jocks.
When Kasch's father pushed him to attend Harvard Business School, the boy rebelled and enrolled in the University of Illinois campus at Urbana, where he began pursuing sports in earnest as avocation and as vocation. He played basketball and football, played both shortstop and second base on the baseball team that won the 1934 Big 10 championship, and entered the university's physical education program -- a bold career choice in Depression-era America.
"I was ridiculed," Kasch recalls. "My fraternity brothers said I was a dumb PE major. All of this exercise was a bunch of hooey."
He graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1935 and, while a PE faculty member, earned a master's degree two years later. His move in 1937 to the university's College of Medicine, Dentistry and Pharmacy fueled his professional and recreational passions.
Charged with developing recreation programs for the college's students, Kasch made his first bow in 1937 to oblige the students' interest in archery.
Store-bought equipment was expensive and difficult to come by at the time, so Kasch used the woodworking skills he learned as a youngster to craft bows and arrows. He and his wife became avid archers and good shots, but nearly a decade would pass before he would travel to the cranberry farm in Warrens and discover his recreational passion of bowhunting. Deer populations were low in the Midwest in the 1930s, and it wasn't until the 1940s that a bow hunting season opened for residents in Wisconsin.
He began viewing the country's growing obsession with sports competition as an obstacle to preventing heart disease, diabetes, and other diseases emerging and accelerating as office work reduced people's activity levels. He found it closed off the benefits of exercise and sport to all but a relative few skilled athletes.
In 1948, Kasch accepted a job at San Diego State University and took his offbeat ideas and his family west. "They all thought he was a nut," says Roger Pyes, a close friend who met Kasch when he was a graduate student at SDSU, where Kasch taught from 1948-1980 and now has a laboratory and an endowed scholarship named after him. "But he was way ahead of his time."
University officials made it clear he was hired to teach and coach, not conduct research, but Kasch soon found ways to pursue his interest in unraveling the science of exercise and applying it to improve people's lives.
In the 1950s, while working on a doctorate from New York University, he spent summers at a Chicago hospital developing tests to assess the fitness of children recovering from rheumatic fever. The disease struck mainly children and often left them with permanent heart damage.
Kasch had the children climb up and down on a bench that was one foot off the ground for three minutes, counted the steps they made, measured their aerobic capacity, and took their heart rates afterward. Physicians at the hospital started to use the test to prescribe exercise programs for children recovering from the disease. Kasch's step test is still widely used by the YMCA and other fitness programs.
In 1958, Kasch started an adult fitness program at SDSU to provide exercise classes for San Diegans, including men who had suffered heart attacks in the past or had high blood pressure. Kasch led the participants through flexibility, strengthening and aerobic exercises several times a week and monitored their heart rates. It was the beginning of the nation's first cardiac rehabilitation program.
In 1964, with the help of cardiologist Dr. John Boyer, Kasch shifted the fitness program's focus to applied research. Program participants would help illuminate the role of exercise in the health and disease of middle-aged people.
By the late 1960s, the team reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that men with high blood pressure were able to significantly reduce their blood pressure by exercising as little as twice a week.
By the early 1970s, Kasch and Boyer realized they were sitting on a gold mine. They had 10 years of data on the blood pressure, aerobic capacity, weight, and other measurements of 15 middle-aged men, including themselves.
The participants were tested in 1974, and, at ages ranging from 43 to 66, were found to be in as good of shape – if not better – than they had been 10 years earlier. That finding set the medical field on its ear. The study helped lay the foundation for the nation's fitness boom in the 1970s, and put to rest the conventional wisdom that exercising after 35 was tantamount to delivering a death sentence to an aging heart and blood vessels.
"Physicians hadn't considered that the heart had to be used to keep it as a good pump," Kasch recalls. "The thinking was if you have heart disease, you can't do much. If you exercised, you were going to kill yourself. Now we know that exercise affects every cell and organ of the body, not just the heart and lungs."
Kasch and Boyer tested the participants at six intervals in the following decades. Last year, the British Geriatrics Society's journal Age and Ageing published their results after 33 years of testing. Four of the men have died, two from cancer, one from Alzheimer's and one from pneumonia, but the remaining subjects have suffered minimal losses in fitness and no changes in body fat or body composition. At ages ranging from 69 to 89, they are still swimming, hunting, skiing, mountain climbing and playing tennis. Their blood pressure has stayed the same at ages when more than 60 percent of Americans suffer high blood pressure.
Thirty-six years into the study, Kasch still calls his subjects to encourage them to continue their exercises. "Most people get along fairly well without too many medical problems until they hit 60," Kasch says. "The last 10 to 20 years of life, they are nothing but aches and pains. So they're existing, but they're really not living."
What their longitudinal study has shown, Kasch says, is that with regular exercise and good nutrition, "sure, you're going to go downhill, but you're going to go downhill much slower."
Perhaps his greatest legacy is his success in bringing that information to people and in practicing what he preaches. "The lives he has touched, the people he's influenced and the lives he's extended are just enormous," Pyes says. "To me, Fred's a living hero."
Kasch pulls the same bow weight he's pulled for decades, an impressive feat considering he uses a long bow. This traditional bow requires the hunter's effort to increase as he pulls the arrow back, unlike the more popular compound bow, which allows the hunter to decrease his effort typically 60 to 80 percent.
Kasch maintains that ability to pull an arrow by shooting nearly every day at the Big Foot Archery facility. "In order to shoot a (long) bow and arrow I like to have a bow of at least 50 pounds draw weight," he says. "That means I have to maintain good upper body strength." After warming up to avoid rotator cuff injuries – push-ups against his car, arm circles, two sets of 15 deep push-ups, and two or three pulls on the bow – he'll shoot for half an hour. Then he'll drop down for "20 to 25 deep push-ups until I'm pooped."
He also maintains strength and fitness with his daily regimen of strength and flexibility exercises and by jogging and walking 3.5 miles a day, five times a week. He used to run the full length in 8-minute miles until he suffered pneumonia a few years ago, a bout that seemed as damaging to his psyche as to his stamina. "I still can't believe I got pneumonia," he says. Now he clocks 13-minute miles.
"My philosophy is a person should try to stay fit within 90 percent of their capacity at all times," Kasch says. "Of course, you have ups and downs over the course of the year... you'll be more fit at times than at others."
Good nutrition is as important as exercise in maintaining good health, Kasch says. He loads up on fruits and vegetables, limits fats to about 20 percent of his daily caloric intake, eats sensibly portioned desserts, and skips caffeinated beverages.
The combination of good food and exercise has enabled him to enjoy what's been a retirement in name only. He pores over nine sports medicine and fitness journals and travels to meetings of the American College of Sports Medicine. "The curiosity gets greater and greater," he says. "The more you know, the more you want to know."
He and his wife, Teddie, travel throughout the spring and summer to archery tournaments across the Midwest in which longbow enthusiasts shoot at simulated, three-dimensional targets of animals such as deer, bear, cougars and turkeys.
Fred is a good shot and a favorite among the archers, says Jack Stevenson, a friend and fellow traveler on the circuit. "He goes out and talks to everybody and shows them how to make bows and arrows."
In early July, Kasch was helping a friend finish up a bow in his makeshift workshop in a small room off the garage. "I'm lazy and getting lazier all the time, so I buy these semi-finished bows from a chap in Flint, Michigan," he says. Kasch can finish off one of these bows in a day, compared to the several days it would take him in earlier years when he'd use a hand ax and draw shave to shape a bow out of a log of yew.
Now he uses Osage orange for the bows because "the wood is so tough and hard it can take a lot more beating and handle the temperature change better."
Kasch uses Port Orford cedar dowels from Oregon to make his own arrows, often splicing in a birch dowel to create a footed shaft to prevent the arrow from breaking at the connection with the broadhead. He fletches the arrows with turkey feathers, and paints the arrows with two coats of lacquer or varnish. "I don't do a good job of painting," Kasch says. "I put my effort into proper weight and stiffness."
He makes everything he uses to hunt or compete in 3-D archery tournaments, with the exception of broadheads and target points, and often salvages old clothes or other materials. His quiver, for example, is made from a foam thong and old leather. "You've probably heard that I'm a cheapskate," he says and winks.
Using his own hand-made equipment enhances his enjoyment in the field. "It's a thrill to see your arrow go where you're aiming, even if you don't hit your target," Kasch says. Which is a good thing, since he hasn't hit a deer for many years.
The lack of success reflects his aging eyesight and the difficulty of getting within about 20 yards of his prey before firing off an arrow that will travel about 150 to 160 feet per second toward the target. That's about 100 feet less per second than an arrow fired from a compound bow and 10-15 times slower than a speeding bullet fired from a hunting rifle.
Kasch's never been tempted to increase his chances of claiming a deer by using a compound bow or a gun, or by sitting in a tree stand. "I enjoy the beauty of the woods and the quietness and the challenge of trying to see a deer before he sees you," Kasch says. "I like the camaraderie."
"Getting a deer is not the end for him," Pyes says. "He's more of a nature-lover, an outdoorsman who just coincidentally is carrying a bow and arrow."
Kasch hunts opening day and every day he can before the archery season closes. He'll typically be gone for four to six hours, and then returns to the cabin to eat, take a nap, and calculate how far he'd walked and how many calories he'd burned that day.
"There's no end to it," Pyes says. "Sometimes, you're out walking around and you haven't seen a deer and you do get a little bored. Fred will take off his hunting jacket, put down his bow, and he'll challenge you to a push-up contest."
Lisa Gaumnitz, DNR Public Affairs Manager, writes about outdoor and environmental issues from Madison.