Some years ago I read that only two percent of Canadian runners will continue with their passion after age 65. I was 60 at the time and struggling to keep running, so this low retention rate jolted me. There was a good chance I wouldn’t make it across the age 65 finish line.
I’ve never been able to verify that two percent statistic. Part of the problem rests with arriving at a definition of what constitutes a runner. We range from elite marathoners to twice a week joggers. Still, no person I’ve asked has doubted the figure’s veracity. All agree that a very low number of Canadians will be putting in the kilometres beyond traditional retirement age.
Think of this low percentage the next time you’re at a road race (hopefully, this summer). Look at a random group of 100 competitors in the crowd. Only two will still be running in their mid-60s. This is a sobering picture considering running’s unquestioned benefits of later-life health.
Recreational running boasts the highest participation rate of any sport on the planet. Why then do so many Canadians give it up? The most common answer comes in one word: knees. Yet running is actually healthy for knee joints. Others retire due to a physical ailment, such as a bad back, or some pressing medical issue. For most of us, there is a wealth of proven solutions to help extend our running lives.
Sport physiotherapy, dynamic stretching, yoga and core strength training are a few. Ditto for wellness initiatives like weight control, improved diet and ditching alcohol. For those of us committed to it for life, running is an exercise option worth pursuing. Yet baby boomers, Canada’s largest age wave in history, are giving it a pass. Quitting at 50 leaves them 30 years to watch others enjoying it.
Some of the blame lies with running events that focus on racing, winning and personal best times. Some runners are finished with these by age 50, if not earlier. Lowering athletic expectations is difficult for competitive personalities. Adjusting to running simply for pleasure is for the majority, impossible and they quit, for good.
I enjoyed the euphoria of big races – with 50,000 others in the Vancouver SUN Run – until age 53. I expected to continue racing weekend 10Ks forever. Then came the wall, that rapid decline so many experience, in my mid-fifties. Always fit and confident, I didn’t see it coming and didn’t know how to respond.
No longer a ‘serious’ runner I slipped into being an inactive, injured and overweight one – a physical train wreck.
I turned this around by learning to embrace running’s slower cousin, jogging. For me, it delivers all of running’s best outcomes – joy, health and energy. Jogging may even be my life-saver. Running after 60 – along with the positive habits that necessarily accompany it – isn’t just recreation. It’s medicine for late-life vitality and longevity. I sometimes feel I am, literally, running for my life.
This past year six people I knew died from cancer or heart incidents. All were in their 50s or 60s and were bright, positive people with a lot of life left to give. No, running wouldn’t have saved them all. It’s not a panacea for all medical ills. But determined, daily movement belongs somewhere in the larger discussion of late life wellness and preventive medicine.
Every day this year one thousand Canadians will turn 65. We’re an aging nation. The generation that ushered in the 1970s running boom will soon become the least active demographic in Canada.
“Of course they’re the least active!” I can hear people saying. “Do you really expect pensioners to be as active as thirty-somethings?” As contrarian as it sounds, yes, I do. We largely choose not to be because inactivity is built into our culture.
My province is brilliant at facilitating sport and physical activities for youth. This despite a large elderly population and serious levels of lifestyle-induced unwellness. A Herculean effort is made for active participation for the first 20 years of our lives but next to nothing for the last 20.
Negative social attitudes don’t help. I’ve become inured to the incredulous stares, smirks and outright head-shaking disgust from people who see me jogging. Apparently what I’m doing is off the charts weird. “A walk around the block with the dog, fine,” our society seems to say, “but running? At your age? Are you crazy?”
This despite science that appears to show that more, perhaps even most of us, may be capable of running into our 70s and 80s. Ontario phenom Ed Whitlock set world records in his 80s. Mick Jagger once said he jogged 10K a day. Sir Mick is 77 and going strong. Renowned Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami runs 10K daily. He is 71.
I was winning long distance races in 1970. I no longer need organized competition. I’m a proud jogger and honoured to have met Arthur Lydiard, the man credited with single-handedly inventing the activity I embrace. Lydiard told his running charges to slow down, to jog, because they were moving for the good of their health, not to win races.
Last summer I completed several solo rural rave runs, all of them challenging, gratifying and health-inducing. Their palpable sensation of freedom and bliss made this senior feel like the happiest runner in Canada. The plan is to continue them until I’m in my 80s. For now I’ll enjoy my membership in that rare runner’s group—the Two Percent Club.
Jenkins has just finished his book Jogging Through the Graveyard, Running For My Life After 60