I recently turned 46 (!), and in celebration of this 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 a 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 improved 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 better functional capacity than an unfit person in their 30s.
Like aerobic capacity, muscle strength and function is also critically important for aging well. In fact, starting around age 30 it is not just the muscle itself that is lost, it is also the motor neurons in the spine that control muscle fibres. Research from McMaster University has showed that masters runners in their 60s had just as many motor units (muscles fibres plus motor neurons) as people in their 20s. Even track athletes with an average age of 80 demonstrated that octogenarian runners had 40 per cent more motor units than healthy non-athlete 80 year olds. Moreover, the signals from their brains to their muscles were also more robust – suggesting that they were able to make better use of the muscle they had.
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 expectancy 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?
Olga Kotelko – What Makes Olga Run?
Olga Kotelko was not your average 90-something woman. She not only looked and acted like much younger, she held over twenty-three world records in track and field, seventeen in the 90-95 year old category. Olga lived a rugged farm childhood as the 7th of 11 children born to Ukrainian immigrant parents, an unhappy marriage, single parenthood, and a long career as a beloved school teacher. Then something remarkable happened: the Vancouver resident, who engaged in recreational slo-pitch baseball, hiking, and bowling took up track and field - at 77. She quickly gained international fame, competing well into her 80s and 90s. In her last years, she won hundreds of medals in events such as the high jump, long jump, triple jump, shot put, javelin, hammer and discus throws and the 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre sprints. She submitted to extensive study by exercise physiologists, and researchers at McGill determined that she functioned at age 93 like a “very healthy 70 year old”.
Olga advocated a life of moderation, exercise, and positive attitude. “I choose not to let the dark stuff have a negative effect on me,” she told her biographer. She died in 2014 at the age of 95, having competed at an event the weekend before her death.
Ernestine Shepherd - Older Adult AND Body Builder
Ernestine Shepherd, age 80, was a model in Baltimore for years, but at age 56 she and her sister Mildred Blackwell went to try on swimsuits and found their bodies were out of shape. Ernestine characterized herself as a "well-padded school secretary". They decided to start taking aerobics classes. Shortly thereafter, Ernestine's sister began to compete in bodybuilding shows under the name Velvet, and Ernestine followed under the name Ernie. However, her sister died shortly after of a brain aneurysm. Devastated and in mourning, Ernestine stopped going to the gym. After a few months, a friend suggested that her sister would have wanted her to continue what they had started. Part of the very reason Ernestine continued to be a competitive body builder for many years was in tribute to her sister. For several years, in fact, she was the world's oldest competitive female body builder.
Today, Ernestine may be retired from competitive body building but she still wakes at 4am daily, and spends her days lifting weights, running, and working as a personal trainer at her gym. She runs 80 miles a week and trains for marathons. She says has never been happier. As a personal trainer, she works primarily with senior women five days a week and “live(s) to inspire senior women to reach their physical potential.”
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 said, “She never complains. She’s bright and cheery 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.
- Ha Tu Thanh. Olga Kotelko, a Canadian track star well into her 90s, has died. The Globe and Mail, June 25 2014.
- Hutchinson, A. The Science of Running. Canadian Running Magazine, July/August 2016.
- Breaking the Boundaries: The Incomparable Betty-Jean McHugh. iRun, August 2009
- McGinn, D. Nun on the run (and the bike, and in the water). The Globe and Mail: 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.