In late April of this year, Katherine Switzer ran the Boston Marathon, completing it with an impressive time of 4:44:31. This was slightly slower than her first Boston marathon, in which she finished in 4:20, but we can cut her some slack. Her first was 50 years ago, in 1967. She was the first woman ever to enter the Boston Marathon. Her courage and strength today is no less inspiring than it was 50 years ago.
In 1967, Kathrine wasn’t allowed to enter the marathon. It was felt that women were too fragile for the race. She registered as “K.V. Switzer,” and when race officials saw her, they tried to rush her off the track. A well-timed body block from her boyfriend helped her to keep going, and as the race went on, the crowd came on her side. This “fragile” woman completed something most of us wouldn’t even dream of trying.
Stereotypes about fragility still exist today, only instead of toward women, they are geared toward all older adults (though, it must be said, more so toward older women). There is some truth to this: Our bodies do change as we age, and for athletes, the transition can be particularly cruel. Adjusting to the new realities of the body can be frustrating, but they don’t have to be.
You can find success as an aging athlete if you let yourself mentally adjust to new physical realities, but don’t let yourself be defined by them. Just as when you were younger, there are spaces to grow and challenges to be met. After all, at the age of 71, Katherine Switzer ran her 26.2 miles. You can follow behind her by rethinking exercise and your body to stay active as you get older.
Understanding Your New Body
We tend to think of our body as maturing and being at its peak, and then declining. We see it as a natural curve, and while that is, in an objective sense, accurate, it is also inherently prejudicial in a way that is self-limiting. It’s easy to see the peak of your condition as the only place to be, as the best place, but that paints a disturbing picture of life.
For the most part, humans begin physiological decline around the age of 28, although it varies with athletes. But for the sake of argument, we all accept that we are generally a step slower and have more aches and pains, as we round into the 30s and beyond. But that “decline” isn’t an ending. It is just a new phase.
We’ve talked about how, no matter what, you are still—and always will be—you. Aging doesn’t mean you’ve become an “old person” and that your life is over. You aren’t in the waiting room. You are in another doorway. You can still explore and grow because you are yourself. And just as it is mental, it is physical.
Think of it this way. You can do things at 25 that you couldn’t at 15. You are probably stronger, faster, and so on. So you try different activities, different sports. You’ve adjusted to and are using your new body. So why do we think that you shouldn’t do the same at 35, or 55, or 75? It is the same process: understanding the possibilities and limitations of your body at any phase in life.
Slowing down isn’t the end. It just makes the race a little longer.
Don’t Compete. Feel.
What do we mean by extending the race? It means setting different metrics. When you are in your 40s, you might no longer be the star of rec league gym. You almost certainly won’t be running the court and tossing alley-oops when you’re playing in your 60s. But that isn’t frustrating. You weren’t doing that when you were 14, either (probably), and still had fun.
You can still enjoy running, playing ball, hiking, biking, kickboxing, and more if your expectations are grounded in reality. If you are working within your physical capacity and not outside of it, you can still have fun, get into great shape, and remain active.
But please don’t think this means you have to stop caring, or you have to take it easy. Being grounded in reality means accepting what is different and finding ways to define your own excellence. The reality isn’t the stereotype that you have to slow down or stop pushing yourself, or, for crumb’s sake, “act your age.” It means, at most, to act your age. Act the way your age makes you feel.
There are thousands of mental and physical benefits to exercise, including dancing, hiking, swimming, yoga, and more. But if you’re an athlete, you probably don’t need to be told that. You know that you want to keep going but maybe are saddened by the limitations. Maybe those limitations make you want to give up.
Don’t. You don’t have to (unless, of course, you do have to. Always listen to your doctors). If you are healthy enough for activity and want to, then do it. You don’t have to stop kayaking because everyone else on the river is younger. You might not win the race, but so what? You’ve already won.
Aging athletes can handle the gentle decline of their body the same way they handle any other changes, good or ill: with courage, determination, and a sense of adventure. Slowing doesn’t mean stopping. It means overcoming new challenges by growing in different ways and finding the strength that has always been in you.
At Institute on Aging, we run programs and services to help older adults live their lives to the fullest with dignity and independence. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs for seniors, their loved ones, and caregivers.