Teach an Old Dog New Tricks
Recently, I saw the news of a 100-year-old man, Fauja Singh, who finished the Toronto Marathon in 8 hours, 11 minutes. What struck me as interesting was that he started running at 81 years of age. I have been involved with marathons, professionally, for years and recently had the opportunity to watch the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I have observed for over a decade that the average age of “endurance” athletes is much older than one would expect. Twice, Diana Nyad, 61, made attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida… certainly, there have not been any 20-somethings performing such feats. But why is this?
Exercise Is Medicine
According to Barbara Bushman, editor of “ACSM’s Complete Guide to Fitness and Health,” older athletes recognize that exercise has physiological benefits: Improved glucose, cholesterol, blood pressure, bone density, body composition, aerobic capacity, muscle mass and ability to perform activities of daily living. They can be more reflective and see the benefit.
We can all agree that physical activity yields a positive mental attitude and helps to maintain cognitive function, but it can also be social.
Bob Babbitt, the co-founder of Competitor Magazine and 10th inductee into the Ironman Hall of Fame, explained that there is a social component to endurance sports – there is an increased availability of training groups.
“In your 20s, you are in college, starting a career and perhaps a family – without the time to train for endurance sports, but once you get into your 30s, you can appreciate that being more fit makes you a better parent, partner, employer, employee and friend,” said Babbit. “Exercise is the fountain of youth.”
America’s PE Program
Team sports involved other people to show up in order to play, however, swimming, cycling and running can be done alone and at one’s own pace.
“We want the person who had the swimmies on as a kid, ran around the yard, and biked in the neighborhood to find their childhood again,” Babbit said.
Some people find triathlons intimidating – they involve swimming, running and cycling, but the number of events and participants across the country increase each year. Competitor Sports has the Rock’n Roll series – with music along every course, and their Muddy Buddy series, in which you can have fun and get dirty with very little training.
In this year’s Ford Ironman World Championship, the average age of the competitors was 37 years old, and 70 percent were over the age of 35, according to, Shelby Tuttle, a spokesperson for the event. The Ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, followed by 112 mile bike ride, finished with a 26.2 (marathon) run. A “masters athlete” is one that is 35 years or older.
“Some athletes spend up to 40 hours per week training,” Tuttle said.
Who has that kind of time? The oldest male in this year’s Ironman was Lew Hollander, 81 and Harriet Anderson, 76, was the oldest female. With age, comes wisdom, maturity and perhaps the ability to have what it takes to go the distance. Beate Goertz, 42, was the first non-pro female to cross the finish line, in front of people half her age.
Richard Finn, Director of Media for the NY Road Runners, told me their motto is “run for life; there is a race for every pace.”
The nice thing about running is that it can be an individual-driven activity, there is no court or tee time, and running is an activity that can be accessible at any time for busy people.
In last year’s New York City Marathon, 53 percent of the 45,103 finishers were over the age of 40. This year, there will be a 5K run in New York City starting at the UN and ending at the same finish line as the marathon, giving more runners the opportunity to be part of the fun and excitement.
Mind Over Matter
There is a beauty and allure to running because almost anyone can do it, and it doesn’t have to be a long distance. Many communities and causes have 5K and 10K races; and half marathons have become more popular.
I have done several half marathons with some of my overweight clients, and I can tell you that the positive feelings of accomplishment are truly priceless.
Bushman had some great advice for participating in endurance sports as we age; “remember the pregnancy rule,” and listen to your body. It goes without saying that you should speak with your physician before starting any physical fitness program — but we can all start by walking.
Felicia D. Stoler, DCN, MS, RD, FACSM is a doctorally trained registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, TV personality and expert consultant in disease prevention, wellness and healthy living. She is the author of "Living Skinny in Fat Genes: The Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Feel Great." She hosted TLC's groundbreaking series "Honey We're Killing the Kids!" Become a fan of Felicia on Facebook, follow her on Twitter or visit her website FeliciaStoler.com