81-Year-Old Runner Breaking Records — ‘The Best Is yet to Come’

senior runner

Story at-a-glance -

  • It is never too late to engage in regular physical activity, as it is a journey and one of the most important things you can do for your health and longevity
  • At 81, Jeanne Daprano, a retired elementary teacher, competes on the Masters Track and Field Team, traveling around the globe, holding world records in several age brackets at 1500, 800 and 400 meters distances
  • Daprano has achieved these milestones using core strength training, flexibility and interval training, often running no more than 10 miles a week, beating the woman’s open record mile time on an age-graded table
  • While excessive training may damage your heart, exercise contributes to a significant number of physical and mental health benefits; you may draw inspiration and motivation from those who continue to teach and compete well into their senior years

By Dr. Mercola

Regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health and longevity. Having been an avid exerciser myself for decades, there's no doubt in my mind a comprehensive routine is essential for optimal health. However, fitness is a journey, and one which you may begin at any time in your life.

It is important to take stock of your current state of fitness and to keep pushing yourself to new heights, no matter where you start. At the same time, it is critical to listen to your body and be willing to revise your routine as circumstances change. I was a long-distance runner for many years, but as I got older I realized there were far healthier and more effective forms of exercise through which I could enjoy greater health benefits and fewer injuries, including the use of interval training.

Strength training, flexibility and aerobic activity are integral parts of a plan to help you to sleep better, improve your immune system, lower your risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes and improve your brain health.

Foundational to your daily activity is nonexercise movement, and may be even more so than a regimented fitness routine. Ideally, it's important to have both, but if you're currently sedentary, I recommend you start by sitting less. Jeanne Daprano, 81-year-old runner and world record holder, has demonstrated it's never too late to start.1

81-Year-Old Runner Believes Better Things Await Her

Retired elementary school teacher Jeanne Daprano may be redefining your idea of aging. In this short video interview with CNN, she shares her perspective on fitness and the passage of time, from which she prefers to wring every bit of life out of before she dies.

Daprano started breaking records after she turned 50 and believes the best is yet to come. She began her fitness journey in her 30s when, as a third-grade teacher, she recognized her students needed to remain active in order to learn better.2 After retiring, she began participating in international track meets and quickly discovered she loved them.

Once she got serious, she qualified for the U.S. Masters Track and Field Team. In 1999 she met her current husband, Bill Daprano, at the meet in England. Nine years her senior, Bill Daprano was an avid fitness buff and head football coach for nine seasons in Georgia, compiling a winning record.3

Due to health reasons, Bill has recently stopped competing, but Jeanne is training for this year's meet in Spain and also runs with the Atlanta Track Club.4 She says:5

"The thing I'm learning about aging is, it's inevitable. I'm not going to escape it. There are two ways to go: You can either press on or give up. Do I want to go back to 50, 40? No. Because I think the best is yet to come."

Jeanne holds the current world record in the women's 70-year-old age group mile and women's 75-year-old age group 400 and 800 meters.6 But she was capturing world records in her 60s in the tough middle distance 1500 meter — in both 60-to-64 and the 65-to-69 age groups. Her record times in both age groups was under six minutes for a distance just 200 meters short of a mile.7

Daprano Runs Quality Not Quantity Miles

July 21, 2012, Jeanne broke the listed woman's 75-to-79 age group mile record by 49 seconds. This came just after setting a pending record the previous month at the Carolina Classic championships. Daprano talks about her training schedule, which calls for no more than 10 miles of running each week, including her warmup miles.8

“It's not something you'll find in any of the running books, but it works for me. I'm running less than I was five years ago, but I am strengthening more.”

Her two running workouts each week take place on a track or on the grass and usually consists mostly of sprint intervals. Daprano picks up her endurance from the rowing machine and stationary bike and is content to run middle distances at this time in her life. According to age-graded tables, her time at age 75 is equal to a 4:00:23-minute mile in prime running years.9

In comparison, the current world open record is 4:12:56, set in 1996 by Svetlana Masterkova,10 12 seconds slower than Daprano’s age adjusted time. Daprano works out with a fitness trainer and averages 50 minutes of squat jumps, deadlifts, wall sets, planks and a number of other resistance and flexibility exercises, as well as running various routines in deep water with weights on her ankles and wrists.11

She believes this routine has helped her avoid injuries and might be the reason she's lost only 10 seconds in her mile time during the first half of her eighth decade in life. She stumbled on to a routine, taking full advantage of strength training while reducing excessive cardiovascular activity that may actually jeopardize heart health.

According to one study,12 the rate of sudden cardiac death during a marathon is 0.8 per 100,000 participants — rare, but not unlikely. Excessive cardiovascular training may pose a sevenfold increase in cardiac risk13 as it places extraordinary stress on your heart your body was not designed for.

Exercise Adds Quality Years to Your Life

Many studies have demonstrated exercise reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the U.S. Regular physical activity may also reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome, a condition in which you have demonstrable insulin resistance.

Increased physical activity may reduce your risk for certain cancers, strengthen your bones and muscles and increase your longevity.14 While the prevention of these hold significant benefits, it is the quality of life improvements that may give you the greatest pleasure.

Physical activity can improve your brain health and keep your thinking, learning and judgment skills sharp as you age. It also reduces your risk of depression and helps you to sleep better. Physical activity reduces your functional limitation and may prevent your loss of ability to do everyday activities.

Lyle Ungar, researcher in the department of computer and information sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the data defining longevity15 and finds exercise is one of the factors impacting life span the most, and over which we have the most control. According to Ungar:16

"The first 20 minutes [of exercise] a day probably buys you two years [extra] life expectancy. Clearly a win. The second 20 minutes per day probably buys you about one more year. What I really like about exercise is, not only do you live longer, but you die faster in the sense that once you finally start to fall apart, you fall apart quickly. Exercise is good that way."

Daprano agrees with the philosophy of fitness as a means to an end. She says,17 "When I get to the final finish line, here on Earth, I want this body to be worn out, there's not a thing left in it. I'm not doing this to live to be 100. I'm doing this to be the best I can be, today. Period."

Consider Adding a Personal Trainer to Your Regimen

Whether you're just starting out or trying to make improvements in your current fitness regimen, consider consulting with a personal trainer who can instruct you about proper form and technique and coach you through a particular challenge.18 A trainer can also help you develop a plan based on your unique goals and one working safely within any medical conditions you may be suffering.

At the start of any program, it's important to start slowly and gradually, increasing your intensity while still listening to your body. Be sure to give yourself ample time for recovery as well as the proper nourishment to build your muscles. Both rest and nutrition are important to fitness as your muscles grow stronger faster when given the proper time to rest and the nutrition needed to build strength.

If you are elderly, infirm, have balance issues or have otherwise been injured in the recent past, and you decide to try exercising at home, be sure you have a “spotter” next to you in case you lose your balance. Even when your fitness routine does not require balance, such as riding a stationary bike, it's important to have someone at home in case you get injured.

Personal trainers are also educated in teaching others how to exercise, along with proper nutrition and lifestyle changes to improve your potential to reach your fitness goals.19 Trainers can demonstrate proper form, help with your unique requirements as you set realistic goals, help to hold you accountable to your program and encourage you to form good habits, while breaking bad ones.

Draw Inspiration From These Seniors

Starting a new program or increasing the intensity of one you already use may require inspiration to get over the initial challenge. Consider the lives of people who have gone before you, and draw motivation from their actions and their goal-oriented lifestyle choices. Bill and Jeanne Daprano are just one example of a husband-wife team who have brought home gold to Georgia after retirement.20

If you're an older adult, you have a lot to gain from strength training, including range of motion, balance, bone density and mental clarity. It's important to remember without strength training your muscles atrophy and you lose mass. Age-related loss of muscle mass, known as sarcopenia, occurs if you don't do anything to stop it.

You may expect to lose nearly 15 percent of your muscle mass between age 30 and your 80s. However, strength training will improve your ability to perform daily tasks, give you relief from joint pain as it strengthens the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your joints, and will improve your blood sugar control.

Strength training also increases your body's production of growth factors responsible for cellular growth, proliferation and differentiation. Some of these promote the growth, differentiation and survival of neurons, which helps explain why working your muscles also benefits your brain and helps prevent dementia.

In my previous article, “Shot of Inspiration — Superstar Seniors Exercise Well Into Their Golden Years,” you’ll find stories about a 77-year-old powerlifter, 93-year-old WWII veteran who ran across the U.S. and the world’s oldest yoga teacher. For those who are starting to get in shape or maintain a fitness routine, Jeanne Daprano offers this advice:21

"Listen to your body. What are you passionate about? How are you going to keep physically fit and mentally fit? Start where you are. Don't look ahead or compare yourself to somebody else. I'm still doing it, and I probably have a greater passion now than ever, because I'm understanding who I am."