September 4, 2013

Exercise on the rise among older Americans

While only a small share of people are exercising enough, the percentage of those exercising after age 65 has been rising.

By Tara Bahrampour and Carol Morello / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON —€” To 63-year-old Greg Cooke, seeing Diana Nyad become the first person to complete a 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida on Monday was nothing short of awesome. Nyad is, after all, just a year older than Cooke, and she reminded him of what is possible.

"I saw that, and I thought, 'Man, this is a total inspiration,'" he said. "It made me feel like I need to get up and get out there and do stuff."

Unlike Nyad, Cooke, a government attorney who lives in Garrett Park, Md., was not much of an athlete for most of his adult life. But when he was 48, he changed his ways. "I had little kids and I was fat," he said. "I had a six-year-old and I didn't want to be an old slug dad who couldn't keep up with the kids." Cooke began running, and now completes marathons with finish times in the three-and-a-half hour range.

Most people do less physical activity the older they get. Only one in five American adults overall exercises enough, as defined by guidelines established by the federal Department of Health –€” at least 150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity, plus muscle-building activity at least twice a week. By their mid-50s it is around one in six, and only one in seven after age 65, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But while only a small share of people are exercising enough, the percentage of those exercising after age 65 has been rising.

As recently as 1998, only 6 percent of Americans over 65 routinely exercised up to federal levels, according to the CDC. Over the next decade, it doubled. In the most recent study, done in 2011, 16 percent got enough exercise.

The upswing marks a change in attitude since the middle of the century. In 1954, Jack LaLanne, a fitness and nutrition buff who had an exercise program on television, marked his 40th birthday by swimming the length of the Golden Gate bridge, underwater, carrying 140 pounds of equipment.

He did it to prove a point, said his widow, Elaine. "In those days, people thought anyone over 40 was over the hill."

Recent research suggests that this is far from the case. A 2010 study of muscle tissue from lifelong competitive runners in their 60s showed their leg muscles had almost as many motor units, a measure of strength, as those of active 25-year-olds.

But starting exercise regimens at any age can be beneficial, according to the National Institute on Aging, which runs a website to encourage exercise among older people.

Nyad's accomplishment shows that state of mind can be as important as physical prowess, say experts on the physiology of aging.

"It's more a testament to her spirit than her body," said Gayle Doll, director of Kansas State University's Center on Aging. "She is relentless. Diana Nyad's message is, you can do incredible things when you're older. We've just been told that we can't. A lot of people have the body to do it, but they don't have her indomitable spirit."

The human body loses protein with age, and with it goes muscle mass. In so-called power sports, such as gymnastics or the 100-meter sprint, people hit their peak in their 20s. But in endurance sports like swimming or long-distance cycling, athletes don't peak until their 30s, after many years of training.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)