AS JOHN J. OTLOWSKY skated from his 60s and into his 70s, he learned one of life's sadder lessons: "You slow up a little bit," he says. "The muscles aren't what they used to be. Your legs haven't got the push you used to have."
On the other hand, there's still a good bit of push there, which Otlowsky, now 76, demonstrated last Wednesday evening as he skated with his 69- and 70-year-old buddies at the Mount Pleasant Ice Arena on Hillen Road.
"My doctor says it really helps, it keeps everything circulating, it keeps you going," says the former furniture finisher for Levinson and Klein, who's been ice skating since he was about 20.
Besides, he likes it. "Man, it feels like you're flying. To me there's no better recreation."
He's not alone on the ice rink. A widespread interest in physical fitness and in activities with potential for lifelong participation, along with the televised glamour of skating competitions, and maybe even the economy have combined to put ice skating on a roll.
"It's affordable," declares Justine Townsend Smith, executive director of the Ice Skating Institute of America, near Chicago. "In many cases it's cheaper than a movie. The fee for public sessions is only $2.50 to $6 for two hours, in various parts of the country."
Smith has seen a real boom in ice skating lately: Entries in Institute-sponsored competitions have jumped from 600 people in 1981 to 6,500 in 1991, she reports.
Locally, there are plenty of opportunities to skate. You can take basic or advanced lessons, join the Baltimore Figure Skating Club or the Baltimore Youth Hockey Club or a men's amateur ice hockey team. You can even learn to dance on ice.
No matter where you live, there's probably a rink nearby, such as Mount Pleasant, or the Mimi DiPietro Family Ice Skating Center in Patterson Park, the Northwest Family Sports Center Ice Rink in Mount Washington, Benfield Pines in Millersville or Piney Orchard in Odenton.
And almost anyone can skate. "I can't think of any group recommended not to do it," says Dr. Angela Smith, a pediatric orthopedist and sports medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Cleveland. A former competitive skater who paid her way through medical school by teaching ice skating, she's instructed children as young as 2 and performed with one gentleman in his 90s.
Peggy Goldsborough, one of the instructors at Northwest Family Sports Center, mentions several reasons why older people like to skate. "Even in your 70s, you look for challenges, something to accomplish," she says. "People who skate as adults do it for fun, sociability, the incredible feeling of accomplishment you get when you try to do something new, and do it."
"And it's something you can do your whole life," says Mount Pleasant's skating director Carla Hackley, who's taught skating for 17 years. The instructor says she especially likes ice skating as an aerobic activity because you don't get hot while doing it.
Dr. Smith, who admits she might be prejudiced, considers it "a phenomenal sport.
"Figure skaters and speed skaters have some of the strongest quadriceps [thigh muscles] around," she continues. "Flexibility develops as they move, as a by-product of trying to do something graceful; pair skaters and ice dancers develop a very firm upper body from holding their partner."
Ice skating also "tones the buttock muscles and the hamstrings [in the back of the thighs], says Patti DeLisi, director of the skating school at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, "and it improves posture; if you lean over, you fall down, so you become more body-aware, and this seems to carry over when you're off the ice."
There's a mental attitude that carries over too, when skaters aim for high-level performance, according to Doug Selin, president of the Baltimore Figure Skating Club.
"Figure skating requires a great deal of discipline and concentration, and that is a tremendous benefit," he says. "My 9-year-old daughter has been skating since age 3, and her concentration is there for other endeavors. . . . All of our skaters are very good students, all are very mild-mannered, well-behaved, very polite."
Selin readily admits that skating is not the whole explanation for the behavioral and academic excellence; as in everything else, individual factors play a part.
This is also true of physical benefits. While recent studies have shown that any activity is better than remaining sedentary, maximum cardiovascular improvements occur when you keep your heart rate, as measured by your pulse, in the so-called "training range" for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, three times a week. For healthy people, training range is usually defined as 65 percent to 85 percent of what you get when you subtract your age from 220.