Rise of the Ageless Athlete

Maybe you’ve heard this from a grandparent or older associate. You’ve just completed a long run, maybe a weight workout, or maybe you’re part of a club team at your local college having just competed in an intense match. Upon hearing about your athletic endeavors, the older individual gives you this line:

I’m getting old; I shouldn’t workout.

Now, never mind that this train of logic is right up there with “I’m getting hungry; I shouldn’t eat,” the day and age of the slow decent into assisted living has passed us by. Now, people are maintaining an exceedingly high level of function deep into their 9th century.

The Long Tail Of Aging

Think about older individuals you’ve known in your life. It seems almost inevitable that you or someone you know had a grandfather or uncle (or grandmother or aunt or parent) who maintained an incredibly high level of physical functioning deep into their 80’s and 90’s. Often we think that this person is special, that they’ve been dealt a genetic “full house” that allows incredibly high function into their later years. This isn’t entirely true; in fact something called the Danish Twin Study established that only about 25% percent of how long a person lives is determined by our genes. The rest is determined by our lifestyle and the increased incidence of “ageless athletes” should cause one to take notice. In other words, the long tail model of aging is no longer de rigur.

What is the long tail? Normally, the long tail refers to the sales of a niche item; the less popular but more targeted (think a book about an obscure mountaineer) an item is, the longer it is going to sell but in smaller amounts. Compare this to a really popular item selling explosively at first but fizzling in short order. Aging, as we’ve come to expect it, follows this trend: a person reaches what is considered an “advanced age,” gets sick, fights back but never returns to the previous level of health, continues to survives, gets sick again, and the process repeats. The final years of this person’s life is spent in a state of stunted function, possibly medicated, definitely not living to the fullest.

Compare this to Jack Lalanne, whose recent death was a shock to most everybody but it is exactly how one would have expected such a man to go. Lalanne’s death resembles that of a wild animal (or possibly a house cat, who barely recognizes its own domestication). The animal spends its life functioning at a very high level. It gets sick just a few short days before it dies. It doesn’t spend years in a state of semi-function; it’s still chasing and killing (or grazing and running) right up until it kicks. To wit this is how Lalanne kicked: he maintained an enormously high function right up until pneumonia got him. Take a look at an interview he gave last year, at the age of 95:


There’s More Than Jack

It is easy to isolate Jack, to dismiss him as an obsessive but there are others, for instance Clarence Bass, who has maintained less than 10 percent bodyfat for 30+ years:


Or Art De Vany, who still trains hard and runs fast at the age of 73:


What about ladies? They’re even more impressive. Ernestine Shepard is 73 and in phenomenal shape:


Perhaps the most impressive of all is Olga Kotelko. At 91 years old, she has athletic records that have not been touched by athletes 10 years younger. You can read about her here and take a look at her speech for accepting athlete of the year:


She didn’t start until she was 77. It’s never too late.