No coach tells Martina Navratilova to hit the gym anymore.
After decades living a regimented and grueling schedule worthy of the world's greatest women's tennis player, she's the one who decides if, when and what games she plays.
And these days, the 53-year-old favors a pick-up game of ice hockey near her Aspen home, completing the cycling leg of a triathlon or a hike in preparation for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Tennis, the sport in which she competed off and on until 2006, is now played just for fun.
Navratilova's love for exercise is in part why she signed on as fitness ambassador for the AARP -- a role that includes an appearance at the organization's next big national event, the Orlando@50+ Expo, which runs from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2.
She calls aging "annoying," but insists it's no reason to stop moving -- even in the face of health challenges, such as her recent diagnosis and successful treatment of breast cancer.
"You just accept aging, but in the same way you defy it," she says. "It doesn't mean you stop just because you're not as good or as fast or as strong. You still try to get the most of your body, whatever that is at that time."
Navratilova admits she didn't embrace this concept when she retired from the singles tennis tour in 1994 with a record 167 titles. (She returned in 2000 to success on the doubles circuit, retiring in 2006 with 177 doubles titles.) Navratilova had trained year-round since the age of 8 and jumped at the chance to turn her back on daily workouts. But she says she ended up "lazy" and "out of shape."
"Then I was skiing one day, and it was a beautiful day, but I had to stop before noon because I was tired. And I thought, "Well, this is really stupid. I have the chance to do what I wanted. ...So that's when I started training again," the Czechoslovakian-born Navratilova says."I didn't feel good. I wasn't a happy camper. When I started training again, I realized how much my body needed it, and my soul as well. I was just so much happier as a person when I was releasing those endorphins, and my body needed it, not because I was a professional athlete but because it was good for the body."She's since learned to listen to her body, including when the signs of menopause started to emerge four years ago while she still was playing doubles tennis. She managed hot flashes and "those little pockets of fat" with a hormone replacement cream tweaked so she wouldn't fail any tournament drug tests."I was laughing because some of the girls playing on the tour don't have their period yet, and here I am, I don't have my period anymore," she says.Her AARP fitness blog regularly discusses how people 50 and older should be open to adapting exercise routines. Navratilova says exercise should be done more frequently as the body naturally slows down.
"If you stay away and don't do anything for a week, it takes longer to get back to that level than when you were 20," she says. "Less (exercise) and more often is the biggest difference when you get older. It takes longer to achieve something. But hey, everything slows down, so you sort of accept it and go with it."She warns that acceptance doesn't translate into complacency, especially in light of health problems. For example, when Navratilova was diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year, she looked at the treatment options and laid out a plan of attack."You have a long-term goal, and you break it into smaller goals until you get to where it's ... not so overwhelming. And so that's pretty much how I approached this cancer thing," she says of her plan, which included a lumpectomy, six weeks of radiation and a regular exercise routine."It's not like I was overdoing it and training heavy duty. I did tone it down a little bit. Like the first week, I couldn't believe it knocked me on my butt, literally. I was so tired. I was playing tennis and I had to rest every five minutes. So I did."Navratilova doesn't shy away from speaking about her personal battle with cancer, which isn't surprising considering she's been in the public spotlight for close to 40 years. Fame has allowed her to be an advocate for issues such as gay and lesbian rights, and she says she's grateful for that opportunity.Although she no longer competes as a professional athlete, Navratilova says she knows staying fit is essential if she wants to reach other goals, such as her upcoming December climb of Kilimanjaro for an international sports charity. She wants to be ready for whatever she faces when she hits, 60, 70 and beyond."I still want to be making a contribution," she says of her senior years. "But have I found that one thing that I want to be doing when I'm a 70- year-old? I have no idea."