Shot of Inspiration — Superstar Seniors Exercise Well Into Their Golden Years

Story at-a-glance -

  • Whether you’ve never exercised before or have simply fallen off track, it’s never too late to renew your commitment to physical activity. Even if you’re well into your senior years, you still have time to begin
  • Inspirational stories include a 77-year-old powerlifting granny, a pensioner who took up karate and got her black belt at the age of 78, an 86-year old nun who has participated in 45 Ironman competitions, and others
  • Workout tips for the infirm are also included

By Dr. Mercola

Whether you've never exercised before or have simply fallen off track, it's never too late to renew your commitment to physical activity. Even if you're well into your senior years, you still have time to begin, as long as you're still breathing.

Sometimes seeing the accomplishments of others can serve as a healthy dose of inspiration to get us going — if one person can do it, many others, including you, can probably do it as well.

For this reason, I've included a number of inspirational stories in this article; people who are still performing at high levels athletically, even though they're well into their Golden Years.

Some started late in the game, yet their accomplishments show just how much you can improve, if only you begin right where you are. I've also included tips and guidelines for the very old and infirm. In the video above, my mom demonstrates seven basic seated and standing balance exercises for frail seniors.

You can read through the instructions for these exercises in my previous article, "Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm."

Improving your balance and coordination can go a long way towards reducing your risk of falling, which is the most common cause of hip fractures and traumatic brain injuries among seniors.

Consider a Professional Trainer

If you're just starting out, consult with a personal fitness trainer who can instruct you about proper form and technique. They can also help you develop a plan based on your unique fitness goals and one that is safe for any medical conditions you may have.

If you're elderly or infirm, and decide to try some exercises at home, be sure to have a "spotter" next to you in case you lose your balance.

Start slowly and gradually increase your intensity while listening to your body. Be sure to give your body ample time for recovery, as well as the proper nourishment to help build your muscles. Amino acids are extremely important as they form the building blocks for muscle.

Leucine is a particularly potent stimulus for muscle growth. However, avoid amino acid isolates of leucine. In its free form, it's been shown to contribute to insulin resistance and may lead to muscle wasting. It's far better to get leucine from whole foods; the best source is a high-quality whey protein.

Also please be careful when using leucine or branched chain amino acid supplements unless your goal is professional body building. I strongly believe they should be limited to two or three times a week at most, as they will activate mTOR and increase your risk for disease if used chronically.

Older Adults Have Much to Gain From Strength Training

My mother began strength training at the age of 74 and three years later, she'd gained significant improvements in strength, range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. In the video above, which was taped in 2011, she demonstrates her own strength training routine.

It's important to realize that without weight training, your muscles will atrophy and lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass is known as sarcopenia, and if you don't do anything to stop it you can expect to lose about 15 percent of your muscle mass between your 30s and your 80s.1 Other benefits of weight training include:

  • Improved walking ability: After 12 weeks of weight training, seniors aged 65 and over improved leg strength and endurance, and were able to walk nearly 40 percent farther without resting.2
  • Improved ability to perform daily tasks: After 16 weeks of "total body" weight training, women aged 60 to 77 years substantially increased their strength, improved their walking velocity and their ability to carry out daily tasks, such as rising from a chair and carrying groceries.3
  • Relief from joint pain: Weight training strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your joints, which takes stress off the joint and helps ease pain. It can also help increase your range of motion.4
  • Improved blood sugar control: Weight training helps to control blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes.5 It can also reduce your type 2 diabetes risk; strength training for at least 150 minutes a week lowered diabetes risk by 34 percent compared to being sedentary.6
  • Improved brain health and slowed brain aging: Strength training also increases your body's production of growth factors, which are responsible for cellular growth, proliferation and differentiation. Some of these growth factors also promote the growth, differentiation and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.
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A Shot of Inspiration — 77-Year-Old Powerlifter

While muscle loss is inevitable, unless you do something to counteract it, it's never too late to begin. In one study, a group of nursing home residents with an average age of 90 improved their strength between 167 and 180 percent after just eight weeks of weight training.7

Willie Murphy, featured in the video above, taped in 2014, began weight lifting at age 73. Four years later, at 77, she was able to deadlift 215 pounds — more than twice her own weight (105 pounds). She can also powercurl 60 pounds.

Needless to say, she carries her grand-children and groceries with ease, and has no problem shoveling her own snow and pushing her car when it gets stuck. These are all quality of life issues that you may not fully appreciate until or unless you lose them. Murphy, however, recognizes the value of being able to accomplish these everyday tasks, and views her powerlifting regimen as life-affirming.

78-Year-Old Pensioner Becomes Oldest Black Belt in UK

Last year, then-78-year-old Phyllis Rowley earned her 1st Dan Black Belt in karate. A retired clerk in Dudley, U.K., Rowley took up karate at the age of about 72, as a chance to get more active and learn a bit of self-defense in the process. In six short years, she worked her way through the belt ranks. She's expecting to complete her 2nd Dan Black Belt next year. In an interview last year, Rowley said:8

"It's the best thing I've ever done and I absolutely love it! I attend three to four classes every week and it's got to the point where it has now become a way of life. I never expected it to go this far. But I feel much safer and have no problems going out at night on my own … It certainly beats sitting around moping about, or watching TV all day and so I'd encourage everyone my age and older to get active and take up self-defense too."

Tai Chi Is Ideal for Elderly With Chronic Health Problems

A gentler form of martial arts that is suitable for everyone, including the very old and frail, is Tai Chi, a branch of Qigong. Often described as "moving meditation," the activity takes your body through a specific set of slow, gentle and graceful movements. It's very low impact, making it easy on your body, yet it provides many well-documented health benefits.

Studies have shown that Tai Chi stimulates your central nervous system, lowers blood pressure, relieves stress, tones muscles and helps with digestion and waste elimination. Plus, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), Tai Chi helps to channel chi, or intrinsic energy, through your body's energy meridians, helping you maintain good health. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), health benefits associated with Tai Chi include:9

Improvements in physical condition, muscle strength, coordination and flexibility

Improvements in pain and stiffness, including arthritis pain

Improved balance and mobility

Improved sleep and overall wellness

Reduced risk of falls, particularly in the elderly

Enhanced immune function

86-Year-Old Nun and Ironman Triathlete Inspires a New Generation of Athletes

Sister Madonna Buder is an 86-year-old Ironman triathlete who began running at the age of about 47. Buder told People Magazine:10 "There was a point where I did not want to see a pair of running shoes, then triathlon came in. That was the salvation."

Buder has now become a face of Nike, featuring in one of the company's "Unlimited Youth" ads. She's the oldest woman ever to complete an Ironman triathlon, earning herself the nickname "The Iron Nun." It's a well-earned name indeed. The race includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, and she's done 45 them! Her Nike ad (above) has more than 2.4 million views on YouTube. No doubt she's making a lot of people question: "What's my excuse?"

93-Year-Old WWII Vet Runs Across US

CBS News recently featured Ernie Andrus; a 93-year-old WWII veteran who just finished a three-year-long, 3,000-mile run across the United States, starting at the Pacific Ocean in San Diego and finishing at the beach of Saint Simons Island in Georgia.11  What gave him that idea, you might ask?

"It's all for one purpose," CBS explains. "'I want people to know what the war was all about and what it took to win it,' Ernie explained. Specifically, the old Navy man was running to raise awareness for an unsung hero of World War II — a ship he served on called an LST, or landing ship tank. It's how the allies got heavy equipment onto beaches."

Along the way, Andrus gathered a slew of fellow runners who ran various distances along with him. When he reached St. Simons Island, hundreds of people had gathered from around the country to complete the final distance by his side.

The 98-Year-Old Yogi

Now 98, Tao Porchon-Lynch is recognized as the world's oldest yoga teacher by the Guinness Book of World Records. (In the 2014 interview above, she was 96.) Born in 1918, she has been a practicing yoga instructor for the past 58 years. As recently reported by Newsweek:12

"Porchon-Lynch exudes the type of vitality most would be amazed to see from anyone in their upper 'senior' years, much less someone in their late 90s. Her voice is steady and clear, and she's exuberant and animated, often gesturing with her hands as she peppers conversations with relevant anecdotes.

It's no surprise she chooses not to subscribe to the standard notion of aging. 'There is too much publicity in the world on people getting old,' she says regarding the expectation that old age comes with leading a limited life. 'To me, it's exactly the contrary. I look for the next adventure and truly believe there is nothing you cannot do.'"

At 85, Porchon-Lynch also took up ballroom dancing, putting men decades younger than she through their paces. Her advice for a long and happy life? "Don't procrastinate; don't say 'I'll do it tomorrow.' Tomorrow never comes."

Yoga Is a Gentle Exercise Suitable for the Elderly

Like Tai Chi or Qigong, yoga is a gentle form of exercise that can benefit a number of common health problems. It's particularly useful for promoting flexibility and core muscle strength, and has been proven beneficial if you suffer with back pain. Yoga can also help you turn your health around if you're too overweight to engage in more strenuous types of exercise.

People with heart problems may also want to consider yoga, as it's been shown to have a beneficial impact on the heart. One 2013 study found that taking a yoga class at least twice a week for three months reduced symptoms associated with atrial fibrillation13 (irregular heartbeat) by half.

(This condition is typically treated with beta blockers, but these drugs don't work for all patients and come with a slew of side effects, including heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes and sexual dysfunction, just to name a few.)

The participants also reported feeling less anxiety and depression. Anxiety scores fell from an average of 34 (on a scale of 20 to 80) to an average of 25. Yoga may also help stave off cognitive decline, according to a recent study of older adults with early warning signs of waning memory. Other studies have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can impart a number of different physical, mental and emotional benefits, including the following:14,15,16,17

Improved immune function

Improved sleep

Reduced risk for migraines

Lowered risk of hypertension and heart disease

Lowered cortisol (stress hormone) level by down regulating hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and calming sympathetic nervous system

Improved sexual performance and satisfaction in both sexes

There's a Suitable Form of Exercise for Everyone

So, do you feel inspired yet? I hope so! All of these examples demonstrate that you can do just about anything you set your mind to — even if you get a very late start in life. So make the decision to take action NOW. As Porchon-Lynch says, "Don't procrastinate!" Visit a gym and speak to a trainer, or sign up for a class that appeals to you.

If you're very old and frail, or severely obese, you can start with seated exercises as described in my previous articles, "Basic Exercise Guide for Older Seniors and the Infirm" and "Seated Aerobic and Strength Training Exercises for Those with Limited Mobility." After that, you can move on to "Easy Strength Training Moves for Seniors."

Remember, walking is always an option, and it costs you nothing. As a general rule, I recommend walking about 10,000 steps a day over and above your regular fitness routine, but it can also be a great place to start if you're currently inactive. As you progress, consider incorporating some form of strength training and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to really optimize your health and fitness.