The Penn Relays are the oldest and largest track and field competition in the United States, hosted annually by the University of Pennsylvania. Its more than 300 events attract more participants than any track and field meet in the world—from high school and college students to seniors in the masters category in various age groupings. It runs for five days and has more than 100,000 spectators in its final three days alone.
In the meet’s 2022 edition last April, a 100-year-old runner and World War II veteran, Lester Wright, ran the 100-meter sprint event in 26.34 seconds, setting a world record for centenarians in front of a wildly cheering crowd of thousands. Watching the video, I was amazed that this hundred-year-old was still running in good sprint form, pumping his arms rhythmically in superb coordination with his vigorous strides, which characterizes sprinters in their prime.
But what really boggled my mind was, here was a person of his age who could still run competitively, and not just jog or shuffle along. Most of all, just imagine reaching a hundred with complete alertness, clarity of mind and intact reflexes.
Having been an avid runner in my younger days, still participating and managing to win in my age category in track events up to my late 50s, I thought that I was already pushing myself beyond the normal age limits of my favorite sport. I only stopped because I could no longer find competition locally for seniors beyond 60, unlike in the US where they have masters categories up to 80 and beyond, such as the Penn Relays.
For lack of competition, I hung up my running shoes and concentrated on “gentler” sports like tennis and golf. Nowadays, I have to be content with racing with my grandchildren and doing my own version of interval workouts of walk-jog-sprint outdoors.
But I’m still looking for a regular partner of at least 60 who is willing to do 60-m or 100-m timed sprints for both of us to keep in running shape. Centenarian Wright’s record-setting performance has truly inspired this octogenarian to keep running as fast as he can for as long as he can with no thought of age.
The main point of this piece is not about running per se, but about keeping reasonably fit in one’s senior years, especially beyond 80. Remember that today’s mantra is, “80 is the new 60” (just as 60 is the new 40). Unless one has a major chronic ailment or a physically incapacitating condition, there is really no excuse not to be reasonably active in one’s 24-carat golden years.
The secret to being “reasonably active” is quite simple: Stay vertical and keep moving as much as possible during your waking hours.
But this is actually not easy to practice because the temptation to sit down or go horizontal for long spells during the day is hard to resist, especially for older folks. This is partly why it has become a standard fitness prescription for seniors to take at least 10,000 steps daily, popularized lately through the automatic step counter of Apple Watch.
But even this is hard to accomplish unless one makes it a point to set aside a separate daily walk of several kilometers or dedicated walking time on the treadmill.
A surprising piece of advice given in “The Science of Living Longer,” a recent special edition of Time Magazine, was to exercise even a little bit. The research cited showed that even moderate physical activity of less than an hour a week was associated with a 15 percent lower risk of death, with runners (we’re right back to running) enjoying a very significantly lower risk—30 percent from any cause and 45 percent from heart attack. I guess I chose the right sport in my youth.
The other related piece of advice in the Time article is what I mentioned earlier: Get vertical. Stand up more and avoid being habitually sedentary. Research has shown that sitting longer than three hours a day shaved two years from a person’s life expectancy, and people who put in six hours of TV time a day had a life span 4.8 years shorter than those who didn’t watch TV.
What seniors can do
So, what are the activities which can be labeled “moderate physical activity,” especially for super-seniors over 70? Here are my own personal suggestions, from the easiest to the more challenging:
- Walk whenever you can. At home, go up and down the stairs five to 10 times a day; don’t take the elevator or the escalator in buildings and malls if the climb is only one or two floors; don’t forego the opportunity to walk some distance to and from your car in the parking lot.
- If you’re a golfer, walk on the course as much as you can (if you have a golf cart, get off and let your caddy drive it part of the way). I truly believe that many golfers get to an advanced age because they regularly walk a lot on the golf course.
- Go out and take regular walks of 2 to 5 km in your neighborhood at least twice a week, and try to get as close as possible to those 10,000 steps per day.
- If you still can, do alternate walking and slow jogging at intervals of 100 meters. If you find this difficult, lengthen the walking phase and shorten the jogging phase.
- And for those who want to get in as good a shape as Wright, do the walk-jog-sprint routine, adjusting the respective distances to your most comfortable capability and confidence level. No need to overreach or outdo yourself, a temptation I sometimes succumb to when my old competitive urge gets the better of me.
From personal experience, I have realized that the pursuit of long-term physical fitness is a conscious and continuing decision which becomes a lifelong habit, not a spur-of-the moment, short-lived urge. My own decision to pursue lifetime fitness sprung from a physical liability which became a blessing in disguise.
As a young boy, I suffered from asthma, and I observed that some of my peers who had the same condition were frail and not physically active. So I decided to take up as many sports as I could that appealed to me—basketball, football, track and cross-country running; and after college, martial arts, tennis, golf, and practical shooting; and after retirement, motorcycling.
At times my overzealousness and passion worked against me, and I got exercise-induced asthma attacks. But all in all, I believe that my dedication to physical fitness through sports has helped me reach today’s age in relatively good health.
And after being endlessly inspired by Wright’s running performance, it is no longer unrealistic to hope that I can still walk in the unlikely event that I get to reach a hundred. —CONTRIBUTED