Back to Fitness: On Getting Old


We don’t have to age…not yet anyway.

Sadly, I have seen a lot of people who look at themselves at 40 or 50 years old and see an “old” person. They seem resigned to thinking that the window for getting fit and changing to an active, healthy lifestyle has passed. Perhaps some extra weight makes them feel sluggish and they find exercise to be a negative experience that does not motivate them to continue. Perhaps there are some joint or muscle problems that seem to throw bumps in their road to fitness and they simply stop. Or perhaps it’s just a case of having a closed mindset: “This is just the way I am and nothing can change that.”

There is a fantastic study in a 2010 German publication that I think all of these people should read.  Get out your computer and Google this study:  Leyk, Dieter et al.  “Physical Performance in Middle Age and Old Age – Good News for our Sedentary and Aging Society” from Deutsches Ärzteblatt International, 2010 Nov; 107(46): 809-816.

In this study, the author starts by pointing out the well-known fact that, generally, physical performance seems to decline with age. The question he poses, however, is are these age-related declines in physical performance due to biologic aging, or are they possibly related to the fact that we often live a more sedentary life as we age.

Prior studies have suggested that aerobic endurance decreases by 15 percent per decade after the age of 30. However, these studies were simply cross-sectional studies of the general population. Thus, most 60-year-olds were less fit than most 50-year-olds. However, this is where the author of our study poses the question. Is this because they are 10 years older, or because they have become more sedentary.

To look at this question from a different perspective, the authors of the German study decided to do a cross-sectional examination of people who ran marathons and half-marathons. Their reasoning was that whereas a relatively untrained runner can participate in a 5k or even 10k running event, people who participate in marathons and half marathons are going to be much more committed to training and living a more active lifestyle. These events require more commitment and thus, in general, we can assume that regardless of age, the typical participant in a marathon or half marathon is living a more active lifestyle vs. a cross section of the non-running population.

They analyzed over 500,000 marathon times and almost 400,000 half-marathon times from runners ages 20-79 and stratified this data based upon age and gender. By looking at the finishing times by age, they could start to make some conclusions on how older runners performed versus younger counterparts. The results, as the subtitle of the study suggests, was surprisingly good news for our sedentary society.

First, there was no age-related change in performance noted in men or women until 55 years of age! That’s right, the 50-year-olds were performing just as well as the 20-year-olds!

Second, 25 percent of the 65-69-year-olds were faster than 50 percent of the 20-54-year olds! One in four of the senior citizens 65-69 were smoking half of the 20-54-year-olds at these races!

Third, more than 25 percent of the 50-69-year-olds had started their marathon training within the past five years.  They went from no running to running a marathon as late as their 60s.

This study did have some limitations that any cross-sectional study can have, however there is no escaping the encouragement it brings to the middle aged or older person.

I can certainly say personally, that as a 41-year old, it takes a LOT of commitment to keep up with regular exercise. I often think “what in the world did I do with all my free time in my 20s?!” Making exercise happen means getting up really early in the morning, often not getting as much sleep as I need, and often making my mornings rushed or feeling like I’m squeezing time away from my family or my work and home duties. I can see how it is easy to become sedentary as we get older. We get busier!  Jobs, responsibilities, families…there are endless things on the “to do” list and exercise is often not seen as a priority.

But, what about your health? I recently read another great article, written by David Epstein for, titled “When Evidence Says No, But Doctors Say Yes.” It was an eye-opening, lengthy article discussing how there are so many practices in human medicine based upon research that has been either disproven or that is non-replicable. Many of the drugs and procedures that are routinely prescribed for people simply don’t have the evidence-based backing that you think they would.  With example after example, Epstein concludes the article by focusing on things that we do know help our health: a healthy diet, exercise, and not smoking or excessively consuming alcohol.

We are all getting older, but perhaps it’s time we throw away our notion of what getting old looks like. For me, I hope that getting old involves continued activity, a sharp mind, good health, and minimal medications. Some of this may be out of my control, but I know that right now I am purposefully stacking the chips in my favor. The German study shows us that it’s never too late to stack them in your favor as well, thus improving your quality of life, your longevity, and your contributions to your family and your community. Choose a healthy lifestyle, and start now!

John Andersen


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