Harvard Men's Health Watch

Lessons from the masters

These master-level athletes can teach you how to stay fit and healthy.

You’re never too old to learn from the experience of others. For instance, master athletes in their 60s, 70s, and even 80s might compete at a higher level than you, but they still face the same age-related challenges.

“You can gain much wisdom from these individuals, such as how to exercise smarter, how to overcome obstacles, and how to stay motivated,” says Dr. Adam Tenforde, assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “They have developed strategies that can be adopted by the average person to help maintain health and reach specific goals.”

Here is some advice from three elite older athletes to help you stay healthy and active.

Smarter workouts

How you work out can affect your ability to stay committed and ensure you maximize your efforts.

Do more in less time. Jacinto Bonilla, 79, is the oldest person to ever compete in the national CrossFit Games. CrossFit is a high-intensity program in which workouts consist of a rotation of exercises over a set period. For instance, you might do five pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats, and repeat the sequence for 20 minutes.

What Bonilla likes about his chosen endeavor is that it keeps him moving during each exercise session. “I can do a lot more in a short amount of time,” he says. This also ensures he gets a complete, full-body workout.

You can duplicate the CrossFit approach during your workout by going from one exercise straight to the next, and focusing on a different body part with each. “For instance, after doing a set of biceps curls, go straight into a set of leg extensions,” says Bonilla. “This way, your arms can rest while you work your legs. By going back and forth like this, you can hit all the major muscle groups and not lose time standing around.”

Add everyday exercises. Elite-level athletes focus their workouts to succeed in their particular sport or activity, but they also try to include exercises that provide overall health benefits. Louis Self, 77, took up kiteboarding at age 58. The extreme sport combines the skills of surfing, snowboarding, and sailing by using a wind-powered kite to propel you across the water.

Besides balance and core strength, kiteboarding requires significant grip strength, which he maintains with a grip stick. Here, a weight is tied to a wooden handle with rope. Using both hands, you twist the handle to move the weight up and down.

“It’s a great exercise for strengthening my hands, which I need for kiteboarding but also for doing daily tasks like opening jars and lifting objects,” says Self. Think about how your fitness can complement your daily needs. For instance, if you struggle with back pain, devote time to stability ball crunches that can build your core while supporting your back.

“Pick six” nutrition

Deciding what to eat is always a challenge, especially when you try to eat healthy. Kiteboarder Louis Self suggests taking out the guesswork. He eats six staple healthy meals that he rotates over two days. They cover everything he needs in terms of protein, carbs, and fat. “This way I don’t have to think about what to get at the grocery store. I know how to make them, and can often prepare them ahead of time,” he says. And by mixing and matching, he can make his meals less mundane. Experiment until you find your own six. You can find suggestions in the Harvard Special Health Report Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition at www.health.harvard.edu/he.

Overcoming setbacks

Whether it’s an injury, sickness, or another health issue, there will always be times when you have to put your fitness on the shelf for a while. So how do you bounce back?

Change your focus. Chuck Wakefield, 72, is a longtime cyclist who recently cycled across the country. When he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells found in bone marrow, he spent eight months on medications, which weakened him so much he couldn’t do his longer cycling workouts.

So, he focused on what he could do. “I could only do about 60 to 75 minutes per day on an elliptical trainer, so that’s what I did,” says Wakefield. “This kept up my mental and physical health until my therapy was finished.”

Visualize your return. When Bonilla was sidelined for two months after prostate surgery, he spent that time planning his return to fitness. “I devised a strategy where I began small, like with simple body weight exercises, and gradually worked my way back to lifting as before,” he says. “But I always visualized my return to tip-top fitness. By keeping that image at the forefront, I was able to stay focused on moving ahead instead of dwelling on the past.”

Staying motivated

Everyone goes through bouts of low motivation and lazy days. The best way to maintain momentum is to have various support plans in place. For example:

Get a little sweaty. One way to jump-start your enthusiasm is to ease into your workout. “Taking small steps can get your body and mind warmed up to exercise,” says Bonilla.

For instance, he puts on some energizing Latin jazz music and does a minute of jumping rope or a few hundred yards on a rowing machine. Self takes a similar approach and gradually warms up for two minutes on a stationary bike and then goes fast for a minute. “Once you break a small sweat, that often can be enough to push you to keep going,” he says.

Keep your fitness in sight. A constant visual reminder is a great way to keep your intentions front and center. Wakefield always has his bicycle parked in his den where he can see it. You can take a similar approach. For instance, always keep your gym bag packed and near the door, or store your weights in places you pass by every day, like outside the bathroom or kitchen. This also helps to make fitness more engaged in your daily life.

Have a backup plan. Keep a backup plan in place for those times when life interrupts your scheduled workout. Wakefield heads to a spinning class when a bike ride is rained out, and Self has a room set up with a Harbinger Balance Trainer, workout bench, free weights, and a NordicFlex ready to use on days when he needs to stay in.

Get an exercise buddy. Wakefield cycles with his local cycling club. Not only did he meet people his own age and with the same interests, but the bonding helped him stay committed.

“I was always on the hook to show up for a scheduled ride, so it was harder to make excuses,” he says. Your local YMCA or community center may offer fitness or walking clubs, and local running stores often organize group events and training programs.

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