Elderly Athletes

Elderly Athletes

Age is just a number for seniors who challenge themselves physically to reap a fuller life.

By Kathleen Kelleher 04/03/2014

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Four times a week at 5:30 a.m., Tom Ettinger arrives at a chilly pool deck at the Pasadena Rose Bowl Aquatic Center, where the 65-year-old prepares for 90 minutes of laps with his Masters Swim Team. “Masters” is a special class of adult swimmers, ranging from novices to former Olympians, who navigate swim lanes grouped by speed and ability. “You say to yourself, ‘What am I doing here? Why am I here?’” says Ettinger, a mechanical engineer and former collegiate swimmer who also swims in open-ocean competitions and pool meets. “You are on the deck and it gets very cold, but then when you finish, the endorphins kick in. You finish at 7 a.m. and you are feeling like [you] have already accomplished something.”

Ettinger is part of the country’s fastest-growing age group — people 65 and over, according to 2010 Census data. By 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. And more and more older Americans are spurning milder forms of exercise, like brisk walking and chair aerobics, in favor of pushing the envelope of athleticism. They do this despite inevitable age-related physiological changes, like the loss of fast-twitch muscle fibers (used in sprinting and explosive quick bursts of movement, like jumping), stiffer arteries and a decrease in VO2 max (the maximum oxygen consumption during exercise, a measure of aerobic physical fitness). Peak endurance performance holds until about 35 years of age, followed by modest decreases until 50 to 60 years of age, with progressive declines in the years after, according to physiologists. But while older athletes may not be able to maintain the endurance or intensity of their younger counterparts, they can still compete with slower but still impressive results. Indeed, they are models of what is possible physiologically as the body ages.

Whether it’s in marathons, swim competitions, open-ocean swim races, pool meets, stair-racing or triathlons, older athletes — sometimes called “Masters athletes” — are embracing the push and burn of intense fitness regimens to regain health, vigor and camaraderie and to blunt or reverse the ravages of time. Ettinger’s return to the pool in 2000 was inspired by his doctor’s assessment that he was pre-diabetic. Today, he’s no longer pre-diabetic; he stands 25 pounds lighter and is reawakened to the thrill of competitive swimming in his age division. It is, he says, all good.

For most people, exercise improves health, but before engaging in extreme sports or radical endurance feats, the older person, especially the uninitiated and sedentary, is advised to see a physician. No one should attempt such activities without carefully following a gradual, incremental training program, preferably guided by a doctor or an experienced trainer, coach or team. Slow and steady is the best approach.

“Our experience is the benefits far outweigh the risks,” says Dr. David A. Goldstein, chief of geriatric, hospital, palliative and general internal medicine at Keck Medicine of USC. “Our bodies are capable of doing an awful lot as long as they are trained to do that. If you are just starting out, you need to see a doctor and have a regular comprehensive history of your heart and lungs taken before participating in rigorous exercise.”

Full-time trial attorney Wayne Hunkins, 78, began walking a couple of years ago when he realized he was so unfit he could barely get up off the floor. During a stroll, he noticed some stairs in a parking structure and decided to climb them. Within two months, he went from climbing six flights to 70 flights, taking the elevator down to spare his knees. He was hooked. He signed up for his first charity tower-running event last February, climbing the Empire State Building’s 1,576 steps in 28 minutes. Hunkins then went on to climb the Aon Center (63 flights) and the U.S. Bank buildings (74 flights), both in Los Angeles; the Bank of America building in Dallas (70 flights); and the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago (103 flights). Last November, Hunkins joined Mark Trahanovsky’s West Coast Labels team, one of the world’s fastest stair-racing teams, and flew up the Figueroa at Wilshire building (53 flights). Trahanovsky, 53, a sales rep at Placentia-based West Coast Labels (WCL), founded the team in 2008 following a knee injury that ended his running career. Among WCL team members, Hunkins found fitness enthusiasts who matched his passion. 

 “I call it going out and having a good time,” says Hunkins, whose goal for age 80 is to stair-race the world’s 10 tallest buildings, including Dubai’s 2,700-foot-high Burj Khalifa, and to set records in all of them. Though there are sometimes no more than four competitors in his age group, it is still an impressive feat. Hunkins averages a bit more than 10 flights in three minutes. “One year after I started this, my cholesterol dropped from 221 to 170 and my resting heartbeat dropped 20 percent and my respiration rate dropped 10 percent,” says Hunkins, who also switched to a mostly vegan diet with occasional fish. “When my doctor got my blood tests back after a physical, he said, ‘What the hell did you do?’ I have become a bit of an evangelist.”
Hunkins says that he climbs one day, works out in a gym the next and rests on the third day. “As we get older, that recuperation rate is slower and you seriously need the day off,” he said. 

Protecting against injury is something the older athlete does almost instinctively. Dr. Steven L. Smith, a Pasadena chiropractor, has dedicated much of his practice to this challenge. He co-founded Pasadena Pacers, a free running club, the oldest of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley. Smith co-created the club after his own competitive racing career was over, partly to give himself a push. “There are people like me [for whom] it takes everything I have to get out there and do it,” says Smith, 62, author of Run Healthy, Run Strong (Pacers Press, 2013). “I am trying to stave off the inexorable effects of dilapidation. These clubs have a social aspect to them that helps older folks. For a lot of these people, this is their church.”

Smith adds that crossing the finish line gives people a sense of accomplishment, which helps them feel they can do anything. Smith acknowledges that concerns about heart stress are not unfounded, adding that there are people with atrial fibrillation who are unaware of it. Anyone with a heart condition should be cautious about longer runs that put a person in a “high-intensity heart zone.”  

A 2012 analysis of studies on long-distance running published in Heart, a British medical journal, tracked 52,600 adults over 30 years. Researchers found recreational runners had a 19 percent lower death rate than non-runners. The bottom line: runners who clocked 20 miles or more a week had mortality rates equal to non-runners. A separate study found that runners who ran a 7.5-minute mile or faster had the same mortality risk as the average adult. The bottom line: runners who ran regularly but more slowly did have a lower death rate. On the other hand, faster, longer-distance running for longer periods of time may be stressing the heart. Still, death during a marathon is very rare: Only one in 100,000 marathoners dies during a race, according to a 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

In March, Robert Westheimer, 67, finished a half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Houston. He ran with his daughter and son-in-law, both 35. Westheimer, who has survived cancer twice, beat his son-in-law by nine minutes. “I have to go out there and do it,” says Westheimer, a retired CPA who mentors disadvantaged young people in Houston. “Staying fit in some way is an antidote [to aging and illness]. There is something inside me that is physiological — like a ticking clock — that says, do it now.”

Westheimer responds to that call by running three days a week, recovering on the off days by doing knee- and quadriceps-strengthening exercises prescribed by a physical therapist. He ran track in college and believes that 40 years of the sport has made it an intuitive, integral part of his life.  

Though some studies indicate that running stresses the knees, many long-term studies show that runners with healthy knees when they start are not at higher risk for arthritis, even those like Westheimer who continue running beyond middle age. A July 2013 cross-sectional study of about 75,000 runners published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that there was no increased risk of osteoarthritis for runners, even marathoners. 

What unites all of these older athletes is the drive not just to reverse or slow the aging process but to live a fuller, healthier, more energized life as long as possible. As people live far beyond the Bible’s entitlement of three score and ten — like Hunkins’ mother, who lived until 102 and was still walking a mile a day until she died — the vision and reality of how far we can extend our longevity expand as well. As Hunkins declares: “I am not going willingly.”   

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