Why It’s Never Too Late: Proven Lessons from Brilliant Athletes

I’m not as big a golf fan as my husband, but I was thrilled to watch Phil Mickelson win the 2021 PGA Championship.  At one month shy of age 51, he is the oldest golfer to win a major championship. In his post-victory speech he said, “I hope that this inspires some to just put in that little extra work, because there’s no reason why you can’t accomplish your goals at an older age. It just takes a little more work.”  Anyone who enjoys golf will tell you it takes physical and mental strength to win tournaments…. whether at the local club or the professional level.

Mickelson is one of many brilliant athletes who continue to win at the highest level. At ages where many professionals are joining the “senior” tour or enjoying retirement, athletes in all sports are shining in the game they love. Tom Brady won his seventh Super Bowl at age 43 and Serena Williams is still playing at the highest level at 39. And not just professional athletes are pushing the age barrier; consider that Sister Madonna Buder (known as the “Iron Nun”) holds the current world record for the oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon, which she obtained at age 82 by finishing the Subaru Ironman Canada. Her book, The Race to Grace, tells her story of competing in over 340 triathlons. She says she has learned many life lessons in her 85 years, “but the ones that I’d look back and tell my twenty something self now are: It’s not what you say, it’s what you do; don’t pay attention to how old you are, only focus on how old you feel.”

Let’s be real. Aging has negative effects on almost all body systems, but regular physical activity appears to lesson most of the age-related changes. Just look at these proven benefits of a physically active lifestyle:

  • Physical Benefits
    • Decreased blood pressure
    • Increased blood flow to muscles and skin
    • Increased maximal oxygen uptake
    • Increased components of the immune system
    • Increased bone mass
    • Increased “good” cholesterol (HDL-cholesterol)
    • Increased strength and balance
    • Normalized blood sugar levels
  • Health Benefits
    • Decreased all-cause mortality
    • Decreased risk of heart disease death
    • Decreased risk of high blood pressure
    • Decreased risk of blood clots
    • Decreased risk of type 2 diabetes
    • Decreased risk of overweight and obesity
    • Decreased risk of falls
    • Decreased symptoms of anxiety and depression
    • Improved sleep
    • Enhanced relaxation
    • Enhanced mood
    • Increased well-being

How can we take the known benefits of activity and the inspiration from older athletes from all walks of life and apply it to ourselves?  Try these tips:

Rob playing golf in Ireland with friend, Mark Stanley
  • Choose something you like to do, not something you feel you have to do. Gardening and yard work can be just as beneficial as a trip to a gym. If you don’t have room for a garden, many communities offer plots in a community garden, free of charge. My husband loves golf and I’m more likely to take exercise classes at the local YMCA. It doesn’t matter what you like to do, just find something you enjoy and stick to it.
  • Set goals. Don’t wait until Monday or January 2 to start an activity program. When I decided I wanted to start running (in my younger days!), my sister-in-law and I would make plans every week to meet after work or on the weekend to run. We started slow, 1-mile, 2-miles, and then registered for local 5-K races (3.1 miles). We set a goal of running the 10-K (6.2 miles) Atlanta Peachtree Road Race and within a few years, we did. Thirteen consecutive years of Peachtree Road Races, all from a small goal of wanting to run.
  • Find a buddy. My sister-in-law was my running buddy for many years. Finding and cultivating an exercise friend helps to keep you motivated, interested and provides accountability. You are less likely to skip your walk or jog or bike ride if a friend is waiting for you!

Go4Life, resources for physical activity and exercise, from the National Institute on Aging, describes three keys to success:

  • Include physical activity in your everyday life. Sit less, move more and take activity snacks throughout the day.
  • Make it easy. The more enjoyable the activity, the more likely you are to do it.
  • Make it safe. If you’ve been inactive, start slow, warm up with low intensity exercise, like walking, before a higher intensity activity and stay hydrated by drinking water before, during, and after exercise.

Aging brings challenges and opportunities to active adults. Today, older people run marathons, climb mountains, skydive, swim competitively, and hike the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail. Consider these feats by masters athletes and everyday folks, like us:

  • Eamonn Coghlan, a dominating indoor runner in the mid-1970s and 1980s, was the first man older than 40 to break the 4-minute mile.
  • Priscilla Welch, a 58-year-old lifelong marathoner, was named the best female masters marathoner in history by Runner’s World. At age 42 she won the overall women’s title at the New York City marathon–the oldest woman to claim that honor. Her running career is even more remarkable when you consider she was a pack a day smoker until she began running competitively at age 35.
  • Nolan Ryan played major league baseball for 27 seasons and was still hurling his fastball at 95 miles per hour at the age of 45.
  • Boxer George Foreman, who is now well known for his low-fat grilling techniques, won the world heavy-weight championship 2 months shy of his 46th birthday.
  • Yuichiro Miura of Japan became the oldest person to summit Mount Everest at the age of 80 in 2013.
  • Diana Nyad, at the age of 64, swam 110 miles from Cuba to Florida; 53 hours of nonstop swimming after four previous unsuccessful attempts.
  • In 2016, Ida Keeling at age 100 broke the 80 years and over world record for the 100-yard dash at the Penn Relays and she didn’t start exercising until she was 67.
  • Julie “Hurricane” Hawkins, at 101 years old was the oldest female athlete to compete at the USA Track & Field Masters Championship, running the 100 meters in 40.2 seconds.
  • Clarence Bass, who began lifting weights at age 13, has never stopped his fitness routine. At the age of 80, he maintained a single digit level of body fat and his fitness, as evaluated by the Cooper Clinic, is rated as that of a 40-year old. (For an amazing pictorial of Mr. Bass, see his website and for an interview I did with Mr. Bass when he was 80, click here).
Rob’s first hole-in-one

And, a shout out to my active husband, the golfer, sailor, and expert dog walker, who got his first hole-in-one at the age of 68!

Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is co-author of Food & Fitness After 50. Follow this blog by clicking here.