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73-year-old woman scaling Everest proves you can age well

3:42 PM, May 28, 2012   |    comments
Tamae Watanabe, 2002
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Janice Lloyd
USA Today

Swimmer Dara Torres, 45, is still sprinting in the pool; she aims to qualify for her sixth Olympics.

Pitcher Jamie Moyer of the Colorado Rockies, 49, is still dominating batters; he recently became the oldest pitcher to win a game in the majors.

Not bad, right? Now add more than 20 years.

Japanese mountaineer Tamae Watanabe, 73, is still climbing; she set a world record May 19 by becoming the oldest woman to scale Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world. She broke her own record set when she was 62.

Exercise experts say we should expect to hear more examples like these - exceptionally healthy adults who are transforming our image of aging.

"My guess is that as more people 'age up' who have been active their whole lives and are really committed, we will see more interesting things from people in the 60 to 80 age range," says Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and a specialist in exercise science in Rochester, Minn.

And maybe, he adds, they will inspire a nation where many lifestyles are defined by being sedentary or sitting in front of a computer.

Few of us will ever come close to their level of success at any age, but what stops so many of us from staying fit and staying in our games as we grow older? Exercise physiologist Barbara Bushman says 24% of adults over age 65 are totally inactive, and fewer than 40% meet the baseline recommendations for exercise.

"The short answer is that most of society is not pushing themselves hard enough, but there is a subgroup that clearly is," Joyner says.

"What I find interesting about so much of this is that there is a fitness and physical activity/inactivity crisis in the developed world. However, at the same time there is this emerging subgroup or subculture of fit or super fit middle-aged and older people who are redefining things."

When Janet Evans, 40, started her comeback last summer after taking 15 years off from Olympic-level swimming, Joyner said, "This is the whole new normal emerging."

Watanabe is still climbing in the foothills of the Himalayas and hasn't commented on her accomplishments, but Ang Tshering, the sherpa who coached her, shared some insights with the Daily Telegraph.

She lives at the foot of Mount Fuji, Japan's tallest mountain, he said. She led a team of four on the assault on the northern face of Everest, setting out from their last high-altitude camp (27,225 feet) late at night on May 18 and climbed all night. They reached the 29,035-foot summit the next morning.

"She's a very strong climber and has always been very active," Tshering said. "She has always loved the mountains and has been climbing in the Japanese Alps and around the world for many years."

And Watanabe wants to break the Everest record again in her 80s, he said.

"In all of this, motivation and resilience are the key," Joyner says.

But in a society where obesity is an epidemic, what kind of extra motivation do we need?

"Regular physical activity can favorably influence a broad range of body systems and thus may be a lifestyle factor that discriminates between those who experience successful aging and those who do not," says Bushman, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Missouri State University.

Some scientists go so far as to say exercise actually slows aging. A 1990 study comparing masters athletes and sedentary people shows that people who continue to engage in regular vigorous exercise show one-half the rate of decline in maximal aerobic capacity as the sedentary subjects. Recent research even shows aerobic activity is important for healthy cognitive functions. Regular exercise eases the stiffness and pain of arthritis.

Sports doc and triathlete Jordan Metzl knows this firsthand. . He says he has some arthritis, but says exercise helps him. In his new book, The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies, he has a section on strengthening exercises you can do at home to help protect ligaments and joints.

Most of us begin to notice physical decline in our mid-30s, but it doesn't have to be all or nothing, says Bushman. Far from it. Evans, who follows the latest research on training methods, says she has to take better care of herself, including getting more sleep, shedding a few pounds and giving herself more time to recover between workouts compared with when she was younger.

While Evans hasn't suffered any career-threatening injuries, Torres and Moyer haven't been as lucky. Moyer missed the 2011 season afer having ligament replacement surgery, and Torres has had multiple surgeries, including an innovative procedure after the 2008 Olympics on her left knee to regenerate cartilage. Prior to that she couldn't walk without a limp and the muscles in her leg were atrophying.

"There have been isolated examples of exceptional athletic feats by people in their 40s and 50s for many years," says Joyner, who notes that a 38-year-old woman became the oldest woman to win the Olympic marathon in 2008.

"These are now happening more often, and they are more widely noticed. Some of this is probably due to more general interest in aging."

When Bushman heard about Watanabe, she laughed and said, "Now that is successful aging."

And Watanabe is not alone out there on the icy slopes. At the same time she was making her record climb on Mount Everest, a 72-year-old woman was also on the mountain, waiting to make her climb and hoping to become the oldest woman to reach the summit. Watanabe just beat her to it.

"Although not everyone has interest or ability to achieve a feat like climbing Everest, people of all ages can take steps today to develop a complete exercise program," says Bushman, co-author of the American College of Sports Medicine's Complete Guide to Fitness and Health.

"No one is too old, or too young, to invest in their future health."


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