Can being active keep you young?
By Teddy Katz
In her high school days, Carol LaFayette-Boyd ran track and field and played competitive basketball. She put all that behind her when she got married and enjoyed a long career as a nurse and social worker.
When she was 49, a newspaper announcement changed her life. “The World Masters Games were coming to Regina the following year with a track and field event for over 50’s. I couldn’t believe it and thought I am going to try it and hope I don’t make a fool of myself.” She looked up her old high school track coach and started training for 100 and 200 metre races. (Masters’ athletes compete against others in the same age group.)
100 metres in 13.75 seconds at 60
To her absolute surprise, LaFayette-Boyd won both races—one in a downpour—and “got hooked.” Over the years, her repertoire expanded with age group records in both long and triple jump. In 2018, she was the World Masters Athletics Female Athlete of the Year.
LaFayette-Boyd’s personal best time in the 100 metres (are you sitting down?)—an impressive 13.75 seconds and she feels healthier than ever. “At 35, I would have a tummy ache and maybe a headache. There were times I didn’t sleep well. None of that happens now.” She chalks up her wellness at 79, in part, to having good genes. But she also does a lot of stretching, works out three times a week, eats a balanced diet, drinks lots of water and always looks for new challenges.
Time to step up
But many Canadians her age aren’t like LaFayette-Boyd. According to the 2021 ParticipACTION Report Card, only 39 per cent of adults 65 to 79 fall within a “physically active lifestyle.”
Jordan Deneau is a research associate in the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Windsor who suggests that physical activity comes with good and bad results at times. On the bad side, there is an increased risk of injury—in the worst cases, some elders push themselves too hard trying to slow down the aging process and hurt themselves. But Deneau says there were a lot more positives when he interviewed dozens of older adults and asked them to share their views on sport, physical activity and what healthy aging means to them.
Deneau suggests that “if we just share stories about outliers, who are incredibly active and breaking records at 80, it might intimidate or turn off inactive seniors.
Back to basics
Deneau, who is now studying to be an MD, says if older adults did a sport or activity in their youth, they are more likely to continue later if it can be adapted to match their current abilities and reframed in new ways. For instance, think of what they could do for short periods of time. Whether it is chores, simply going for a walk, getting outside, or doing Tai chi, there are bound to be physical and psychological benefits.
“We are being educated more as future doctors to ask older adults about their physical activity levels as a fifth vital signs alongside heart rate, blood pressure and other vital signs.”
A role model
In her chiropractic office in the Toronto area, 73-year-old Elaine Dembe has a framed photo from the days when she was one of Canada’s top marathon runners. Growing up, she hated gym class and sports. But when she started treating patients 44 years ago, she was inspired to start working out.
“I like to say my gluteus was maximus. I thought here I am starting a practice to help people with their health and well-being, and I am a sedentary blob.” Dembe ended up becoming obsessed with running and trained really hard with top coaches to become the 11th fastest marathon runner in the country in her prime.
Overuse injuries are common
But like many of her patients who are 50 and over, Dembe overdid it and was getting injured a lot. From that time forward, Dembe started exploring the issue of healthy aging. At the same time, her mother happened to live in a long-term care facility in Hamilton. Many of the residents there were not active and like “robots in their chairs.” She decided to interview seniors on the other side of the activity spectrum and wrote her book, Passionate Longevity: 10 Secrets to Growing Younger.
She discovered that fitness and movement were their secret weapons—especially if they participated with other like-minded people and built social connections through their sports. “They were not concerned about dying. They were too busy living.” She adds, “What “healthy aging” means is having meaning and purpose. You need a reason for getting out of bed in the morning.”
Adapting to what the body can do
Dembe says in the past couple of years with COVID-19, overuse injuries have become more common, especially when patients lose muscle mass and their connective tissue is stiff and tight. People do not have the same flexibility and might have more body fat as their body changes. But she says people just need to learn how to adapt.
“I am of that mindset that we need to look at the positive to figure out the ways to keep moving, even if it is one inch at a time. It is my role to get them mobile, show them how to maintain it and get back out there.”
Dembe herself doesn’t run marathons anymore. Instead, once a week she runs 10 times up and down 104 steps in a park near her house. “I do physical work (in my job). I move bodies around. I do massages. I stretch people, I need to be strong.”
One of her long-time patients who is 91 lives with Alzheimer’s. Dembe visits her at home and helps her work out. “I give her five pounds in each hand. She does three sets of 10 and lots of stretches. She has got an immensely strong core and while her brain is not great, her family says her personality changes and she is more lucid after a one-hour workout.”
On the horizon
Back in Saskatchewan, LaFayette-Boyd is happy to be turning 80 this year. It puts her in a new age category where she can perhaps shatter more world records at the next championships in Finland. She is getting ready to compete at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Tampere Finland in June and has no plans to hang up her cleats.
She adds, “I am planning to stay in this (sport) until I am 105. There are three women, two in the United States and one in India (still competing) at 105. And if there are people like that still out there, I am just going to follow them.”
Teddy Katz was a CBC sports journalist for 20 years, and chief spokesperson and director of media relations for the Toronto 2015 Pan and Parapan American Games.