There’s nothing like spotting a 90-year-old pumping iron at the gym to remind you that age is just a number when it comes to your ability to crush a fitness routine.
Take Don Pellman, for example. At 100 years old he recently broke age group records in the shot put, the discus and the 100-meter dash (clocking at 27 seconds) during the San Diego Senior Games. Then there’s Ernestine Shepherd, a competitive bodybuilder who runs 80 miles per week — at the age of 79! And Olga Kotelko, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 93 after winning 750 gold medals in track and field events.
Oh, and did we mention that all of these athletes didn’t start competing until their 50s and 60s? In other words, it’s never too late to commit to fitness (even if it’s for the first time).
Here’s how regular workouts will help you look and feel great (think: Betty White levels of awesome) well into your golden years.
6 Ways Exercise Can Help You Defy Your Age
1. You’ll Feel Younger
It turns out the fountain of youth has nothing on a good sweat session. Researchers in London found that people who stayed active — or got moving later in life — fared better than those who were sedentary when it came to measures of chronic disease, depression and physical or cognitive impairment.
“Exercise is the best medicine for aging,” says Dan Ritchie, PhD, co-founder and president of the Functional Aging Institute. Being physically active helps combat diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and so much more, he says. But what’s most inspiring is seeing how a fitness routine can make older adults feel young again.
“Over time they start to realize, ‘Wow, I’m really not like my friends anymore….[My friends] wouldn’t consider doing some of the things I do because they aren’t fit,’” he says. “That’s an interesting dynamic to observe because they realize what fitness is doing for them.”
“It frees you up and gives you confidence to live your life to the fullest.”
2. You Might Even Live Longer
Not only will exercise help you feel younger, but you might live longer, too. In a recent study of 5,700 elderly Norwegian men, those who exercised at any intensity for 30 minutes, six days a week lived an average of five years longer than their sedentary peers. And those tend to be quality years, too. “If you’re exercising, they’re going to be a good five years, not a miserable and unhealthy five years,” Ritchie says.
3. Exercise Might Help You Stay Sharp
As you celebrate more birthdays, getting six-pack abs often becomes less of a concern than recalling where you left your keys. Luckily, regular, moderate-intensity exercise can boost brain health and cognitive performance in older adults, helping to improve memory, attention and executive function, studies find. And when researchers studied the brain of Olga Kotelko, the 93-year-old track and field pro, they found that the areas of her brain responsible for reasoning, planning and self-control were as in tact as active women 15 to 30 years her junior. Plus, she performed better on tests of cognition and memory than other women her age.
4. You’ll Be Equipped to Tackle Your Bucket List
Think about it: When you travel, you’re more likely to be walking on cobblestones and uneven surfaces, not to mention lugging around heavy suitcases, points out Sue Grant, a personal trainer for older adults and founder of The Older & Wiser Workout Series. Exercise will help you maintain or gain the strength, balance and endurance you’ll need to see the world (or do whatever else it is you’ve got in mind).
Grant says one of her clients, Jane, started an exercise routine for the first time after surviving a stroke (she’s 75 years old). Now that she’s fit, she’s going on more adventures than ever. “I have a hard time getting appointments with her because she’s always out traveling and zipping around,” says Grant. “She would have never started exercising [if she didn’t have a stroke] but now she’s busy traveling, walking, and having so much fun.” Another client is still going on exotic trips to places like Turkey and France, at age 87. “She just charges around the world.”
5. Being Active Keeps You Self-Sufficient
You might take for granted your ability to do yard work, carry your groceries or even just pick up something off the ground — but newsflash, that stuff gets harder with age! Exercise can make sure you maintain the mobility you need to get around on your own longer, Ritchie says.
One of Ritchie’s clients is in his mid-80s and still climbs up on his roof to clean out his gutters. “There’s nothing he can’t do,” says Ritchie. “He’s physically able, strong. He can move around, get down on the floor and scamper about, do bear crawls, mountain climbers, push-ups, you name it.”
6. You’ll Live Life to the Fullest
The mental benefits of being able to move your body are no joke, either. Paul Holbrook, founder and owner of Age Performance, a training center for adults over 50 in Salt Lake City, Utah, recalls one client came to him begrudgingly at the recommendation of a friend. After getting out of the hospital with a serious illness, she was giving up on life. “She had started giving her stuff away to her family — her prized possessions — because she was checking out,” he shares.
But after about five sessions, this woman started to feel stronger and realized there really was something to this whole exercise thing. Now, she’s even taking on consulting projects. “She’s back to being engaged, she’s traveling, she’s got her life back,” he says.
Feeling like exercise has finally allowed them to live again is a common sentiment among older folks, says Grant. “It frees you up and gives you confidence to live your life to the fullest.”