Running never gets old: Elderly athletes inspire the next generation

At 92 years old, Harriette Thompson is the oldest woman in the world to finish a full marathon. In 2015 she ran 26.2 miles in 7 hours, 24 minutes and 36 seconds. Ed Whitlock, 85 years old, became the oldest person to finish a marathon in under four hours when he completed the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in October. These people had every reason to take it easy and relax into retirement, but they kept running. Elderly men and women are inspiring younger athletes and turning heads as they breeze past the limitations that older generations face when it comes to exercise.

Runners defy science

As people age, their bodies begin to lose muscle mass, bone density and aerobic capacity, among other physical changes. These physical characteristics are all really important for a strong running performance, but older runners continue to defy these odds. Doctors and athletes are taking notice of these extraordinary people to better understand how aged bodies handle strenuous exercise and what motivates these athletes to keep going.

Competitors at every age

Runners typically peak in fitness and endurance during their 30s. Previously, race demographics reflected this statistic, with most competitors falling around that age group. Today’s runners, however, demonstrate an age shift as more older athletes hit their stride. These people aren’t born runners either, many are new to running competitions. Engaging in an active lifestyle has great health rewards at any age, but older runners are especially pleased with the benefits.

Physical benefits

People who slip into a sedentary lifestyle with age are more at risk for health-related complications. Runners enjoy a reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other physical deteriorations that are common with age. Older people who run regularly also have greater muscle strength, improved coordination and higher bone density. These benefits help protect the elderly from falls and give them a sense of independence.

Mental benefits

Maintaining independence and dignity throughout the years helps guard against mental health struggles. An active lifestyle is proven to reduce signs of depression, anxiety and other mental diseases. Engaging in brisk activity releases chemicals that fight stress and pain, which relieves depression symptoms. Elderly runners and people who exercise regularly enjoy a sense of purpose as they compete against time and the physical barriers that come with age. These athletes are confident in themselves, which is reflected in other aspects of their wellbeing.

Getting started

For those of us who haven’t exercised in years, experts say it’s never to late to start. Senior men and women who want to get active should start by discussing their fitness goals with a doctor. Exercise is possible at any age, but there are specific risks for older individuals. Once you’re cleared, start slowly. Reaching an active lifestyle is a process, and it will take time to build up strength and endurance. Setting a goal and establishing a workout partner can help keep you motivated. Prioritize warm ups and cool downs before and after each workout. Be sure to give yourself rest days and eat balanced meals to fuel your exercise routines. Each person has a unique fitness goal and medical history, so consult with your physician and focus on what works for you.

Age no longer defines runners as older men and women refuse to slow down. People of all ages are enjoying the physical and mental benefits that come with an active lifestyle. Harriette Thompson didn’t start running until she was 76 years old and at 92 she broke a world record. Thompson had every reason to skip her record-setting marathon race after the loss of her husband and a battle with cancer, but she kept running. Elderly athletes like Thompson are inspiring a younger generation to overcome the odds and live well at every age.