My parents were both old in their sixties, while my aunt, who turns 90 this year, is as sprightly and busy as she ever was. When she left on her recent trip overseas to visit her daughter in Calgary, she insisted on carrying her own suitcase down the stairs to the car.
A lot of people associate aging with things like reading glasses, walking aids and a bathroom cabinet full of pills. For them, growing older means inhabiting a body that’s degenerating rapidly. They believe it can’t be stopped, so there’s no point even trying.
My aunt doesn’t buy into that and neither do these octogenarian athletes, some of whom are fitter now than they were 30 years ago. You might not be able to stop the aging process, but by engaging in regular exercise you can certainly slow it down.
One study found that octogenarians who spend a lifetime doing endurance exercise have the aerobic capacity of 40-year-olds. As Michael Joyner, an exercise researcher at the Mayo Clinic says, “This long decline into disability, it’s not our biological destiny.”
SISTER MADONNA BUDER, 87, IRONMAN TRIATHLETE
Octogenarian athlete Madonna Buder says you are never too old to learn new tricks. She should know. She took up running at the age of 48 on the advice of a priest who claimed that the sport harmonized mind, body and soul. As a nun, this idea resonated with Buder and she decided to give it a try.
Running led to swimming and cycling and at 52 she found herself at the start line of her first Ironman Triathlon. She’s since completed more than 40 of these famously brutal events, earning her the moniker: The Iron Nun.
Sister Madonna’s doctors are at a loss. They can’t figure out how she’s able to bounce back from her injuries so quickly. For her it’s simply a matter of circulation. Buder says when you live alone you have to do things for yourself. You keep moving, even if it hurts sometimes.
JOAN CAMPBELL, 87, SWIMMER
Octogenarian athlete Joan Campbell gives you zero reason to skip the gym. Joan took up competitive swimming on a whim at the ripe old age of 69. While attending one her daughter’s swimming meets she noticed there was a master’s division for her age group. Joan signed up for the 200-meter breaststroke, won the race and was immediately hooked.
She joined a master’s swim team at the YMCA and six months later found herself 10 pounds lighter and brimming with energy. Now 80, Joan is active in the US Masters Swimming organization and still competes regularly.
Her weekly training regimen includes swimming, walking, aerobics classes and YouTube yoga for swimmers. There’s no sitting around in a rocking chair knitting for this lady. Joan claims she rarely naps and can easily keep up with her five grandchildren.
She says her motivation to keep at it boils down to having goals. “Focusing on a long-term challenge, like an upcoming race, gives you the push you need to keep moving,” claims the octogenarian water baby.
FLORENCE MEILER, 83, TRACK & FIELD STAR
Octogenarian athlete Florence Meiler is proof that the jump from professional tennis to track and field star isn’t that far. Florence was 60 when a friend who worked for the Vermont Senior Games suggested she take up long jump. She initially laughed the idea off, but in the end her friend’s persuasiveness won her over and she gave it a try.
In her first year Florence competed in the long jump, high jump and shot put. At 65 she added the pole vault to her repertoire and then in her mid-70s she took up hammer throw. Florence doesn’t let injury stand in the way either. She says trying new things keeps her young.
Her advice to the sedentary among us? Find an activity you like enough to commit to it on a regular basis and then team up with friends to stay motivated and on track. Finally, believe in yourself.
“We’re all capable of far more than we think we are. Instead of saying ‘I can’t,’ say ‘I’ll try.’ those words can make all the difference,” says Florence. From someone who holds 20 US records in track and field and set an age-division world record in the pole vault at 80, hers is advice worth taking.
These ladies aren’t an anomaly either. There are plenty of older folk out there proving that aging is a state of mind as much as it is about staying active and taking care of yourself. If you’re in the mood for some additional inspiration, these five TED talks will make you view aging differently.