Older Adult Athletes and Aging - Not What You Would Expect

Friday, June 24, 2016 - 08:45
Exercise keeps you young

You don't stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.
-Michael Pritchard

As I near the age of 46 (!), I decided today to write about different aspects of aging, by highlighting several older adult athletes to demonstrate what is possible when strength and cardiovascular fitness is maintained as one gets older.  A person does not need to be an athlete, or even aspire to be one, to appreciate the examples I provide.  In addition to the examples I provide below, I encourage you to take a look at an article in the IDEA Fitness Journal which profiled the work I have done with my beloved client Arnie for the last 20 years.  Arnie, previous downhill skier extraordinaire, now avid golfer, is as fit and active at age 75 as he has ever been.  Click here to read.

At the CAN-FIT-PRO conference I attended several years ago, I was very lucky to hear three lectures by Dr. Len Kravitz.  Dr. Kravitz is an internationally recognized exercise physiology professor from the University of New Mexico, and every year at CAN-FIT-PRO he presents brand new research from various areas of exercise science.  One of his lectures was on exercise and longevity.  The most important take-home message from his lecture is that our muscles do not know age, they only know disuse.  What does this mean?  By maintaining an exercise program throughout the lifespan, especially one that includes weight training, aging as we know it simply does not happen.  

An article published in 2008 (Shephard et al) reviewed 30 studies conducted since 1990 with male and female subjects aged 64 and older, specifically on the relationship of aerobic activity, aging and VO2 max.  Men’s aerobic capacity tends to drop 5 ml/kg/min each decade starting at age 20 (from a high of 45 ml/kg/min), and women’s 5 ml/kg/min each decade starting from age 35 (from a high of 38 ml/kg/min).  Once VO2 max declines to 18 ml/kg/min for men and 15 ml/kg/min for women, a person loses functional independence – the ability to carry out activities of daily living. The striking finding of this research review is that after 8-10 weeks of low- to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for 30 minutes per day 3-5 times per week, VO2 max improves 12.9%!  This is equivalent to gaining back 12 years of vigor.  Although low to moderate intensity exercise provided great benefit, higher intensities provided even greater health benefits by increasing VO2 max by 25%.  This means that a very fit person in their 70s can have a better functional capacity than an unfit person in their 30s.

While no one can cheat death, one can most certainly hope for a minimal period of illness later in life. Modern medicine now allows individuals with serious medical problems to live long lives. But, if the average life expentancy for a woman in Canada is 81 years, isn't it better to live out most of that time in good health, rather than disability?

Paul Reese – Go East, Old Man
I first read about Paul Reese in Runner’s World Magazine in 1999.  At the time, he was 81 years old, and was not about to let age or physical problems get in the way of his active lifestyle as a long distance runner.  He suffered from asthma and a bad back, but that was better than the prostate cancer and radiation treatments he had endured 11 year earlier.  Three years after the treatments, at the age of 73, he decided to make a statement about aging and exercise by running 3102 miles across the United States in 124 consecutive days.  In addition, from 1992 through 1997, Reese made runs across the individual US states until he had logged all 50.  His wife accompanied him in a motor home.  He died in 2004.

“We got a little excited – and a little scared – everyday,” admitted Reese, who chronicled his runs with a series of books including Ten Million Steps and Go East Old Man.  “We were always wondering what was around the next corner or over the next mountain.”

Reese offered four guiding principles that he learned from his adventures: (1) maintain your sense of humour, you’ll need it; (2) find your dream and live it; (3) live life intensely; and (4) always have an agenda.  

Sister Madonna Buder – Iron Nun
Sister Madonna Buder, an 86-year-old Roman Catholic nun who lives in Spokane, Washington, has competed in 350 races since taking up running at the age of 48.  This includes nearly 20 appearances at Ironman Canada.  Sister Buder started running on the advice of a priest.  “Running was a salvation for me.  I was going through a very difficult period when I started running.  When I got out there to run, you’re lost in this huge globe of greenery and various things in nature that make you realize how minimal your insignificant problems really are.”  Running gave way to triathlons, and now one of the reasons Sister Buder enjoys participating is to “perpetuate the age group for people to see it is possible [to be active like this at my age]”.  Although Buder considers herself akin to a “China doll” who has been chipped away at every so often, injuries have not stopped her from resuming her activities.  This includes a return to triathlon after suffering a broken hip and being told by the doctor that she would never walk again.  She was recently inducted into the US Triathlon Hall of Fame.
Betty-Jean McHugh – Breaking the Boundaries
Betty-Jean – or B.J. – McHugh celebrated her 57th wedding anniversary in an unconventional manner: by running a half-marathon.  She would have done a full marathon, but she had already done three of those in the preceding six months.  McHugh, 87, does not just defy aging, she has declared it obsolete.  She runs four days per week usually at 5:45 am, and when she is not running she cycles, practices yoga, and weight trains at the gym.  Along the way, she has picked up more than a dozen Canadian and world records, including the fastest marathons for women ages 75 and 80.  Some of the women she trains with are half her age.  She ran the Honalulu Marathon in 2015 and obliterated the world record for women 85-89.

McHugh started running when she was 55 to pass the time while her daughter, a competitive swimmer, trained at the pool.  She ran a 10k and then did her first marathon.  “I thought, ‘I’ll never do another one.  I just have to get it out of my system.’”  However, she was hooked and has since run 14 marathons in addition to countless other races of varying distances.  A running partner says of McHugh, “She never complains.  She’s bright and cherry and positive.  She has a big breakfast every morning.  She likes to read for an hour each day.  She makes everything from scratch.”  

Although McHugh waxes philosophical by saying that her staying power is probably due to good luck and genetics, she says that always setting goals has helped tremendously.  “I just always had a goal, something I wanted to do.  You can always do something.  Go to a gym or walk.  You don’t need to run.”

This retired nurse can inspire the rest of us on what staying active, having goals, and a bit of good luck might bring.


  • iRun:  Breaking the Boundaries: The Incomparable Betty-Jean McHugh.  August 2009
  • The Globe and Mail: Nun on the run (and the bike, and in the water).  November 8, 2010
  • Runners World Magazine: Long Running.  February 1999.
  • Shephard, RJ (2008).  Maximal oxygen intake and independence in old age.  British Journal of Sports Medicine Online First, April 10, 2008, pp 1-19.