There was a time when retirement estates built bowling greens for the ‘more active’ residents, and something as daring as a tennis court or an outdoor pool was considered an unnecessary expense because – well – you know, old people don’t really do exercise.
There are literally thousands, if not millions, of over-60s who regularly run, play squash, do long-distance ocean swims, climb mountains, paddle marathons and/or hurtle down black-grade singletrack. These are just the ordinary, everyday people who happen to have been on the planet for quite a while, and who also just happen to be physically active.
Most of them are living proof of Christopher McDougall’s awesome quote in his book Born to Run: ‘We don’t stop running because we get old, we get old because we stop running.’
In fact, it’s not really that unusual, and – unlike the generations before the boomers – we don’t expect to sit on the stoep and fade away after the birth of our first grandchild.
But there are also some phenomenal older athletes – the outliers, the (rapidly becoming less exceptional) exceptions that show us that limits are, largely, in our heads.
Even if you’ve spent most of your life on the couch, there is hope. At the age of 50, Briton Daphne Belt was a plump lady who got seriously out of breath climbing stairs, so she decided to get fit. And, as she did, she became obsessed with triathlons, winning European and World championships, and completing a slew of Iron Mans (a 3,860-metre swim, a 180-kilometre bicycle ride, and a standard marathon run of 42.2 kilometres). In 2013, she did 75 triathlons in the 75 days running up to her 75th birthday. That was a 1,000-metre swim, a 13-kilometre bike ride, and a 3-kilometre run. It doesn’t sound like much, but she did it every day for 75 days – at the age of almost 75.
‘I don’t think that I am extraordinary,’ says Daphne, “but I am part of an extraordinary generation. […] We’re in our 70s, but we’re young at heart and we have steel in our soul. Everyone my age is capable of making their mark and helping this world to be a far nicer place.
The ultimate amateur
Closer to home, our own Galloping Granny, Mavis Hutchinson, first proved that women can run, and then that ‘mature’ women can run. When Mavis started running at the age of 36, the accepted wisdom of the (male-dominated) sporting world was that women could not run distances of greater than 800 metres. (It was not specified what terrible fate would befall a woman who did, but it was clearly a serious health risk.) Well, Mavis – who says she was a timid, sickly child who regularly fainted, and would not say ‘boo’ to a goose – proved them wrong, and helped pave the way for women athletes the world over.
She is one of the first women to have run a standard marathon – and she did not drop down dead, or suffer from an exploding womb, or whatever it was that male athletics administrators thought would happen to women if they ran ‘too far’.
She was also the first woman to run the Comrades Marathon. Mavis sneaked around the regulations by running unofficially, starting an hour before the official time so that she was – technically – just running on the same road, but not on the actual course of the race.
While Mavis was a serious competitor, she was always the ultimate amateur. She’s never had a coach in her life, has always eaten whatever she fancies, what was around, or what people fed her, and – in contrast to most professional athletes – absolutely failed to specialise. She’s competed – at the highest level – in walking races, discus, javelin, shotput and running races from 100-metre sprints to 100-mile ultramarathons, and including cross-country.
But the feat that earned her the delightful sobriquet of ‘The Galloping Granny’ was her long multistage runs. She had always wanted to run across the USA, so she started off running between Joburg and Durban, Joburg and Messina, and Pretoria and Cape Town. And then she fulfilled her ambition to run across America from LA to New York, which she did at the age of 53 in 1978, in 69 days, two hours and 40 minutes – a record that still stands. A few women have come close to equalling it since – and they’re all in their thirties! And then, because it was there, she ran the length of Britain from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
She’s competed in World Masters Games in Sweden in 1977, Germany in 1979, Japan in 1993, Spain in 2005 and Brazil in 2013. When asked how many kilometres she’s run in her life, she just shakes her head and confesses she has no idea – hundreds of
Not one for clutter, Mavis created mosaics and mosaicked clocksout of her hundreds of medals, and gave them to friends and family.
The consummate professional
Back in the 1960s, most people (including professional golfers) thought that all you needed to play golf was good hand-eye coordination, sufficient fitness to stroll across the fairway, and lots of practice making that little white ball go where you want it to go. But South African golfing legend Gary Player figured you also needed to work on strength, flexibility and aerobic fitness – and the results showed then, and still show now. Generally accepted to be one of the greatest golfers to ever have lived, Gary attributes a large part of his success to his fitness regime. (And, of course, some natural ability and almost superhuman hand-eye co-ordination.)
At the age of 83, Gary Player does a few hundred sit-ups every day, can remain for ages unsupported in the horse position – that squat that martial artists do but that most of us struggle to hold for a few seconds – and can run, bend, twist and lift. In short, he’s what retired Irish rugby player Brian O’Driscoll calls ‘arguably the fittest 82-yearold in the world’. (That was a year ago on a YouTube interview.)
For Gary, fitness was an integral part of his life, and also his livelihood. As well as regular aerobic exercise and flexibility, he concentrated on core strength – and still boasts rock-hard abs most 20-year-olds can only dream of. He was also way ahead of his time in watching his diet. While his competitors packed away burgers and beers, Gary thrived on a mostly plant-based diet, and has done for decades.
In short, he is, as he says in the YouTube interview, ‘reaping the fruits of hard work – and intelligent work.
Build it, and they will come
So the bottom line is, when building a retirement village, keep the bowling green because bowls is fun and sociable, but don’t skimp on the gym and the running, walking and cycling tracks. Staying fit after 60 is not just for the black knights and galloping grannies: anyone can reap the benefits of exercise.
Gary’s take-home message for us mere mortals is ‘the best exercise is walking – and just do some squats.’
And, as Mavis says, ‘you don’t grow old. Only when you stop growing are you old.