How to Stay Active as You Age? Unlock This Former Marathon Runner's Secrets
Stay active and independent for life! Feel great and make active aging a reality with these sure-fire tips.
Written by Jim Brennan
Do you hear yourself saying “used to” a lot these days, as in I “used to” be able to run a mile, or I “used to” play pick-up basketball? First you noticed you had to take a rest stop on the mile run, or you couldn’t make the moves you once made on the basketball court, then you realized you had aches where you didn’t even know you had muscles. Aging is inevitable, the body can atrophy, that’s reality. But there is no rule against staying active as you age.
The choice is yours: either fight nature or make sensible adjustments. People who embrace change and learn to adjust are the ones we say age gracefully or have contagious energy. That person can be you!
Why Should You Stay Active as You Age?
Here are some of many benefits of staying active as you age:
Be able to play with your grandchildren
Control blood pressure and cholesterol
Keep off unwanted pounds
Reduce stress and improve mood
Maintain mobility to participate in activities you love
Make one change today that can have a HUGE impact on your health.
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My earliest memories included playing games with my friends in the street or at the schoolyard, and every game involved some form of running. In high school we ran around the track to stay in shape for football. I continued running after I graduated and went out to work. I’d run in the morning, after work, on business travel and vacation. I started entering 10Ks, 10-milers, my first marathon in 1981, then got busy raising a family and putting food on the table and ran my second marathon twenty years later.
My best running came later in life. I qualified for the Boston Marathon when I turned fifty, and then placed third in my age group at the Bermuda Marathon the next year. It took half of a century, but I won my first running award. A fond memory I have from my running life was receiving the award from the Premier of Bermuda. My good fortune continued until I turned sixty and won my age group in my first ultra-marathon (full disclosure: I was the only one in my age group, so technically I came in last too.)
Running became much more than staying in shape. It was a natural way to manage stress, maintain emotional balance, rhythm, suppress appetite, avoid bad habits like eating unhealthy foods and drinking too much beer. As a manager, running helped me think things through and solve problems that seemed insurmountable when I was under pressure. My mind cleared in the midst of a run and I was able to put things in perspective, sort through the noise and concentrate on the essential. As a writer I tapped my creative energy on a long run—ideas flowed, characters and plots evolved, scenes and stories wrote themselves. A healthy body cultivates a healthy mind.
A healthy body cultivates a healthy mind.
Remaining active has no age limit. Over the years I met runners in their seventies and eighties, even their nineties who became my role models. I pictured myself following in their footsteps (no pun intended,) and running into the sunset of my life, but time and physiology had other plans. I started to notice differences. My knees protested and the number of miles I could once run diminished. I found myself saying “used to” a lot.
There is an annual ten-mile race in Philadelphia called the Broad Street Run that I first entered in the 1970s. It became a tradition that I’d run with friends and with my children. In the early days I completed the race in just over an hour, but in my early sixties the distance I once considered a training run took me twice as long and was the hardest ten miles I had ever run in my life. Later that year I entered an annual 5K (3.1 miles) fundraiser for my high school and when I crossed the finish line I felt like I had just run a 26.2-mile marathon.
Denial is a common human reaction when you are no longer able to do the things you once did effortlessly, but denial weakens after a couple of surgeries. I was at the proverbial fork in the road and faced with a choice: make adjustments and remain active or surrender to a life of idleness.
Tips for Staying Active as You Age
I picked up some lessons over the years that extended my running life, lessons that are relative to any lifestyle to help you stay active as you age. Here are a few tips for active aging:
Running or walking on soft surfaces reduces impact on the body whether you compete in marathons, jog a mile, or walk around the neighborhood. Concrete is solid and has no ductility, therefore it jars the knees and joints. Grass, dirt and artificial turf are more forgiving. About the time I hit my fiftieth birthday, I started entering trail running races held in parks and forests around southeastern Pennsylvania and met an entire new breed of runners of every age. I noticed two things almost immediately: my knees and joints didn’t ache after a long race and over time I became a stronger runner from running up hills. Had I started running on soft surfaces twenty or thirty years earlier, I’m convinced I would still be running today.
Alternate a non-impact form of exercise like cycling with running or walking to extend your running/walking life. Cycling results in less wear and tear on the knees and is easier on the body. I started cycling once or twice a week until one summer my son talked me into riding to the Jersey shore with him, a sixty-plus mile ride. That led to entering fundraising rides for MS, Cancer, the Police Officer’s Survivors Funds, and the Livestrong Century. To satisfy the remnants of marathon mentality my buddy and I rode the Greater Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal from Pittsburgh to Washington D.C., a three-hundred-plus mile jaunt, pulling a trailer with a tent, sleeping bags and provisions.
Hiking is a strenuous form of exercise that strengthens the body instead of breaking it down. As my running miles diminished my buddy and I took to the trails, hiking a few miles here, five or ten miles there. That led to day hikes in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, which led to hiking sections of the Appalachian Trail. We equipped ourselves with backpacks, tents and sleeping bags, and hiked overnight, then two nights, and eventually took week-long backpacking trips. Over a series of years we’ve completed the Appalachian Trail from Virginia to New Jersey.
I admit that cycling hundreds of miles on off-road trails and hiking a mountain ridge are on the extreme side of the activity scale, in fact they are more than I can handle these days, but that’s not the point. The point is to adjust your activities to your physical condition and accommodate your limitations. Find ways to stay active that are aligned with your capabilities. The important thing is to stay active as you age!
There are endless options for adults to stay fit as they age. Recreation centers, community centers, YMCAs, churches, and local businesses offer an endless list of activities for every range of physical ability. Here are just a few:
Nature is invigorating. Fresh air, sunlight, trees, streams and lakes feed mind, body and soul. A vegetable garden is an entire universe in the backyard, and if you have no back yard you will be surprised how much you can grow in containers and buckets. Start seeds in potting soil for vegetables and herbs. On a small plot you can build raised beds to increase production. Experiment with new herbs and vegetables like ginger and garlic. This year I’m growing blueberries for the first time. Working a garden is therapeutic and liberating. Turning soil, tilling, fertilizing, and planting flowers and bulbs are all forms of exercise! Build a rock garden, create a wildflower bed, plant a tree. There is nothing healthier than picking cherry tomatoes and popping them in your mouth, pulling off a basil leaf and chewing it, or pulling beets or carrots from the earth for dinner.
My wife and I take walks at a local nature preserve and watch hawks, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, and an occasional eagle. Cows and sheep roam nearby pastures. A boardwalk crisscrosses a large pond full of tadpoles. Now I have a bird feeder and birdhouse in my backyard that attracts cardinals and blue jays.
The choices we make are the difference between being sedentary and improving the quality of our lives. The backpacking trips I once took on the Appalachian Trail have become hikes with my grandchildren at a local park where we explore new trails, climb over downed trees, up hills and down embankments to skip stones across a creek. Make exercise a family affair. Sometimes I ride my bike to the store instead of driving the car, that way I’m getting exercise and not burning carbon.
I no longer get jealous when I see someone soaked in perspiration in the midst of a long run, pumping out a rhythmic cadence. Instead, I am happy for them. I once enjoyed that feeling and it brings back fond memories from my marathon days. But the balance and rhythm I once got from a long run I now get working in the garden, riding my bike, taking walks at the nature preserve, planting a row of carrots or beets. Find your own rhythm.
Aging is inevitable, but remaining active is a choice. Staying active improves your quality of life and your health. Nobody can do the things they did twenty or thirty years ago, or at least not at the same level they could. But there are an abundance of adjustments you can make that are the difference between staying active or being idle. For me, walking, cycling, and gardening serve the same purpose that running once did. I do my clearest thinking when I’m turning over soil, tilling between crops, pruning a tree, or when I’m on my hands and knees, knuckle-deep in the soil planting seeds. There are so many activities to choose from, and they are limited only by your imagination.
This guest blog was written by Jim Brennan. Jim is a former marathoner who does most of his running these days chasing his grandchildren.
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