You may not see them on the airbrushed covers of muscle magazines, and they may not get the lion’s share of athletic-wear sponsorships. But while the rest of us are worrying about fitting into skinny jeans or out-lifting the guy on the next incline bench, a lot of older fitness enthusiasts — people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond — are quietly kicking some serious fitness butt.
In fact, some of them could, right now, turn out athletic performances impressive enough to put many 20-somethings’ fitness accomplishments to shame. Maybe it’s the decades of training experience they’ve accumulated. Maybe it’s the fact that they long ago put the most superficial body obsessions behind them and have since been able to focus on the fitness attainments that really matter.
Then again, maybe they are simply doing that thing we all say we want to do, but that so few of us actually manage: They are getting better with age.
One thing’s for darn sure — they are by no means going to pot. And that means they have something of real value to teach the rest of us.
Leading health researchers now agree that the rate at which we age is, to a great extent, something we can control. And with proper training, lifestyle and nutritional support, the potential for stellar athletic performance declines less than you might suspect.
These days, it’s not all that unusual for a late-blooming athlete to set a personal best in her 40s or 50s. Or for folks in their 50s and 60s to regularly compete against athletes decades younger. Or for dedicated enthusiasts to continue playing their sport with full gusto well into their 70s and beyond.
A 2007 study by Carl Foster, a professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, found that people over 50 can optimize fitness by combining intense cardio, strength training and extra rest. Apart from the additional rest, the prescription is identical to their younger peers.
And the physical benefits of being fit are significant: everything from better neurocognitive function and bolstered immunity to lower blood pressure and decreased risk of diabetes, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. And then, of course, there are the bragging rights.
We asked a few especially fit over-50 folks how they do it. Ralph Bovard, 55, Loretta Hill, 68, and Marjorie Templeton, 82, generously shared their secrets.
Marjorie Templeton, 82
Tae kwon do black belt, Southgate, Ky.
Three times a week, 82-year-old Marjorie Templeton hits the gym for more than an hour of weights, cardio and stretching. Those are her easy days.
Other days, she’s at the tae kwon do school she founded near Cincinnati, teaching and supervising four hours of martial arts classes.
On vacation, she scuba dives.
But until her late 40s, Templeton was so busy raising children and earning her doctorate in education that she didn’t make time for exercise. In fact, her first formal attempt at exercise didn’t occur until 1975 when, at the age of 49, she decided to join her two daughters at their tae kwon do class.
She’d always felt drawn to martial arts, and within six months she was hooked. Still, she never would have guessed how great her accomplishments would be or how the pursuit would guide her through tough times.
When, in 1980 and 1981, her husband and mother died within 11 months of each other, Templeton found that tae kwon do released her tension and helped her pull through her grief. Plus, it gave her the courage to try other activities.
In 1994, after discovering scuba diving on a trip to Puerto Rico, Templeton retired from a 27-year career as a teacher and administrator, partly to make more time to dive. She still works 100 days a year in the school system but has plenty of time to take her daughters and four grandchildren on diving trips around the world.
Templeton currently holds a sixth-degree black belt, and she’s even contemplating going for her seventh-degree black belt, which would require climbing a 5,000-foot mountain — an arduous task for a nonmountaineer. But she’d have some help: Her tae kwon do group offered to climb the mountain with her. “It brought tears to my eyes,” she says.
Today, her social life, spirituality and physical well-being all revolve around the joy she finds in her fitness pursuits. “I am so fortunate to do the things I do at my age,” she says. “And it is absolutely never too late to start.”
- Marjorie at 30: Fitness wasn’t much of a priority.
- This decade’s bragging rights: Testing for and receiving her sixth-degree black belt in 2001 and being inaugurated as a master instructor a year later.
- Current fitness regimen: Weights, cardio and stretching three days a week; teaching and supervising at her tae kwon do school three days a week.
- What works for her: Keeping a set schedule and fitness routine; pursuing an athletic passion.
- Thoughts on fit aging: “One of my best friends always talks about being an ‘old lady.’ I always correct her. The way I see it, age is simply a number. Live your life the way you want to.”
Loretta Hill, 68
Member of the Celadrin Tigerettes basketball team, Baton Rouge, La.
When Loretta Hill took the court for her first game of basketball in decades, she claims she was a bundle of nerves. But she enjoyed herself so much that she joined a recreational league that year. Nine years later, at the age of 55, she joined the Celadrin Tigerettes, a team that competes in the Senior Olympic Games and various tournaments around the country.
Now, she can’t imagine life without her teammates.
“We laugh so much — the littlest thing can set us off,” she says. “It’s always fun when we get together.”
The Tigerettes work out together at home, scrimmaging against young men or doing drills at the gym to develop their endurance. When they do cardio on the stationary bikes or elliptical machines at the gym, they line up next to each other and compete to go the fastest or burn the most calories.
“I definitely don’t feel the number my age says I am,” Hill says. “To me, there’s nothing I can’t do or try to do.” In a typical week, Hill plays tennis, ballroom dances, cycles, runs conditioning drills with her teammates, and does a challenging weight, cardio and ab routine at the gym.
With a 154–3 record, the Tigerettes are currently training for the Louisiana Senior Olympic Games this fall, where they hope to qualify for the U.S. National Senior Olympic Games in 2009.
- Loretta at 30: She squeezed in aerobics three times a week while raising her two children.
- This decade’s bragging rights: Winning three national gold medals in basketball at the Senior Olympics in 1997, 2003 and 2007.
- Current fitness regimen: Tennis, softball, ballroom dancing and road biking, plus weights, cardio and abs.
- What works for her: Fueling her competitive spirit; being part of a close-knit team; participating in a wide array of fitness-focused activities; having fitness heroes like Andre Agassi to look up to.
- Thoughts on fit aging: “Stay as active — and positive — as possible. Eat well and take your vitamins.” She also swears by the joint cream that sponsors her basketball team.
Ralph Bovard, 55
Swimmer and skier, St. Paul, Minn.
In 1998, at the age of 45, Ralph Bovard swam the 50-yard breaststroke faster than he ever had before, winning his age group at a U.S. masters national swim meet.
“Sports offer the grace and sheer beauty of movement — whether you dance, run, ski, row, dive, climb or whatever,” Bovard says. “And there’s always something to keep working on in terms of technique, balance and motivation.”
These days, though, he advocates low-impact sports such as cross-country skiing, swimming and rowing — and the importance of doing them both vigorously and religiously.
“When you find something that’s enriching and makes you feel better, you tend to want to do it instead of feeling like you have to do it,” he says. “Yet most of the 65 percent of overweight Americans claim they can’t find time for five hours of exercise per week, despite spending over 20 hours in front of a TV. It is an issue of priorities, and also of honoring the notion that the body is the temple for the soul and not a garbage disposal for all the consumer products of our modern age.”
When he turned 55, Bovard did some reprioritizing himself: He quit going to 7 a.m. meetings in order to reserve an hour to swim or cross-country ski. “To me, exercise is adult recess,” he says.
Sports have always been part of Bovard’s life. He grew up in a small town in Iowa where sports were a prime source of entertainment. In high school, Bovard swam, played football and pole-vaulted. In college, he continued to swim and added rugby to his repertoire.
Now, the preventive-medicine doctor touts the benefits of lifelong, vigorous physical activity to patients, colleagues and friends. His family is on board. In fact, his 80-year-old father, Gil Bovard, is his inspiration. Gil plays hockey, sculls, swims — and occasionally still plays rugby.
“Dad has been a great role model,” Bovard says. “He got a black belt in judo when he was 40, started rugby when he was 45 and learned to row at 60.” (For more on Gil, see the Web Extra, below.)
And it’s not just his dad: Bovard’s two brothers and sister swim, and his sister also practices yoga. Competitions are often family events: Bovard competed with his brothers and father in the U.S. masters swim meet in 1999, and he and his dad plan to compete in the Old Boys’ Rugby World Championships in Scotland this September.
- Ralph at 30: While in medical school in Duluth, Minn., he learned to cross-country ski and raced his first American Birkebeiner in 1981.
- This decade’s bragging rights: He won the 50-yard breaststroke in his age group at the U.S. Masters Swimming National Championships in 1998, obliterating his high school and college personal bests.
- Current fitness regimen: Bovard works out for an hour before work, aiming for five to eight hours of exercise per week. He includes two or three moderate-intensity days in the pool or on skis, two hard interval days, and one two- to three-hour long, slow distance day.
- What works for him: Making fitness a family affair by participating in events with relatives.
- Thoughts on fit aging: “If you make fitness your playtime, you’ll be more likely to make exercise habitual. Being able to maintain performance and still whup the young pups is its own reward.”
The Guts Factor
Not only have 55-year-old Ralph Bovard, 68-year-old Loretta Hill and 82-year-old Marjorie Templeton accomplished their fair share of impressive athletic feats, they’ve done so despite injuries, surgeries and even cancer.
All three assert that their commitment to personal health and well-being helped pull them through the toughest times and recover more quickly and gracefully. So here’s just a glimpse into the grit and determination that kept these athletes going when they could justifiably have decided to call it quits.
In 2002, then-76-year-old Templeton was diagnosed with colon cancer. She kept on training. “I was not going to permit the disease to stand in my way,” she says.
After surgery, she was out just six weeks. “At the hospital, they couldn’t believe how I could move around,” she says. Her doctors quickly dialed back her post-op pain meds, finding she needed less than other patients. Templeton has now been cancer-free for six years.
Nine weeks before the 2003 U.S. National Senior Olympic Games, Hill cracked her kneecap. When the brace came off two weeks before the tournament, her therapist said she could play as soon as she could bend her leg to 90 degrees. She went home, worked her leg until she could do it, and called the therapist to report her success — the next day. “The doctors are still in awe of me,” she says.
Bovard also has a track record of quick recoveries: He skied the American Birkebeiner within five months of one of his three knee surgeries, and twice competed in national swim meets within seven months of his two shoulder surgeries. Bovard attributes both his injuries and his fast recovery time to sports, and he says he’d do it all over again.
Leaps and Bounds
Not wild about the idea of developing a spare tire and spending your golden years rocking on the front porch? Meet two role models who’ve made a habit of surpassing age-related athletic expectations.
Bruce McBarnette, 50
High jumper, Sterling, Va.
After turning 50, McBarnette raised the U.S. high-jump record for men over 50 years old. In fact, he raised it five times in three months. In 2006, USA Track and Field named him athlete of the year for men 45 to 49. He won his fifth world championship in his age group in March 2008.
How does McBarnette do it? By working out six days a week, doing a mix of aerobic exercise, stretching, weightlifting, sprinting, cross-training and high jumping. To keep things fun, he plays ultimate Frisbee and touch football. And to stay on top of his game, he competes in open meets every other week.
McBarnette usually beats the collegiate jumpers, and it’s been about a decade since he lost to anyone his own age in the United States.
“I enjoy overcoming the psychological challenge of convincing yourself that you can do something that you should not be able to do,” he says.
Bill Bell, 85
Triathlete, Indian Wells, Calif.
Bell can’t say with certainty which athletic achievement he’s most proud of: completing 32 Ironman-distance triathlons after he turned 59, or finishing two Kona Ultramans at the ages of 60 and 62. (The three-day Ultramans, by the way, involve a 6-mile ocean swim followed by a 90-mile bike ride up to the active volcano on the Big Island, a 160-mile bike ride, and a double marathon — 52.4 continuous miles of serious terrain.)
Bell is sure of one thing, though: Aging doesn’t have to limit your physical activity. This is a guy who started competing in triathlons at the age of 58. Every morning, he spends 45 minutes in his garage stretching, lifting weights and doing cardio. That’s before he heads to the gym for a more intense weightlifting session and a swim or bike ride. Or both.
“I believe that I am alive and still very active at 85 thanks to getting into shape and continuing to work out,” he says. Bell’s no-nonsense advice: “Be active and enjoy life.”
Gil Bovard, 80
Multi-sport athlete, Clear Lake, Iowa
Bovard’s athletic résumé reads like a teenager’s: hockey, rugby, rowing, swimming, kayaking, scuba diving, sailing and cross-country skiing. He’s completed three Birkebeiner ski races, is training for the Old Boys’ Rugby World Championships in Scotland later this year, and swam in the U.S. National masters swim meet with his three sons in 1999 — the most fun he’s had as an athlete, he says. (One of those sons is 55-year-old Ralph Bovard.)
These days, a typical week includes a daily swimming session at the gym, an early-morning sculling or kayak workout in the summer, and Sunday night hockey (he plays goalie).
Team sports keep him going. “That’s where you come together and do things as a unit,” he says. “There’s fun in winning, and a lot of things to learn from losing.”
His advice on getting older: “Don’t even think about it.”
Lauren Fithian, 50
Ultradistance athlete, Minneapolis, Minn.
After completing at least 20 ultra-endurance competitions, Fithian has adopted a new term from one of her fellow ultradistance racers: “flast.” Because she is often the only woman in her age category — occasionally, in the whole race — she often comes in first and last.
“One of my main goals as a 50-plus-year-old is to help others, especially women, find athletic outlets and fitness models,” she says. “I hope to be out there in many different ways to help show that we can.”
She is currently training (by teaching fitness classes or working out two to three hours a day) for a 200-mile cycling race, a 508-mile cycling race through Death Valley and another Hawaii Ultraman — where she expects to compete against at least one other 50-plus woman.
She’s most proud of her athletic range: “I can kick butt in a cardio kickboxing class — figuratively speaking — or in an ultradistance run or a 400-mile bike race, or by braving the Pacific Ocean for a 10K swim, or by sharing my sheer love of athletic movement through teaching,” she says.
When she’s not training, she spends time with her kids — she has five (spanning 15 to 24 years old). “I like to be extreme in everything I do,” she jokes.