Fitness Redefined

A generation of convention busters and iconoclasts, baby boomers are reshaping expectations when it comes to their personal health and fitness, too.

“When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.” So begins Jenny Joseph’s famous 1961 poem about how she intends to buck societal mores by spending her golden years wearing bold colors and doing outlandish things like sipping brandy and sitting down on the pavement when she’s tired. A good sentiment, to be sure, and one that today’s crop of older adults are making good on in their own way: Think silver-haired dynamos in moisture-wicking athletic wear, doing shots of wheat grass, biking to the gym, signing up for triathlons.

Forget frail and meek. Today’s 50-plus crowd is redefining the whole concept of aging and making a passionate and unprecedented commitment to health and fitness. In fact, baby boomers currently represent the fastest-growing segment of gym members. More and more, these activity-loving boomers are rejecting traditional fun-in-the-sun beach holidays in favor of adventure vacations where they can white-water raft, kayak or attend fitness boot camps. These days, it seems, you’re as likely to meet a boomer in a Bikram yoga class as you would at a bingo game.

We’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

So what’s changed? For one thing, we’re living longer. “In 1900, at the turn of the century, life expectancy was 47 years, and now it’s about 82 years,” says Richard Leider, coauthor of Claiming Your Place at the Fire: Living the Second Half of Your Life on Purpose (Berrett-Koehler, 2004). “There is a greater awareness when it comes to aging and fitness because we now have these bonus years.”

These days, aging is no longer about accepting limitations and degeneration. It’s about embracing life, taking up new pursuits, enjoying our health and fitness, and safeguarding them for an extended future. Today, many older people are using their “bonus years” to defy convention, engaging in activities traditionally associated with the younger set, from having babies to starting new businesses to learning how to snowboard.

In addition to longevity, Leider says, today’s generation of active boomers and retirees isn’t much interested in a traditional retirement. “The old model of retirement has basically been retired,” he says. “Those 50 and older don’t want retirement as it used to be portrayed, with their feet up on the porch. Now people are reinventing themselves all along the way, with a combination of work and leisure, and so in order to remain vital they need to be conscientious on all fronts – mind, body and spirit.”

Today’s older populations, many experts agree, are forging a new model of fitness based on overall well-being – one that allows them to keep up with their active and full lifestyles and also stay true to their values of self-determination and independence.

Our values around physical fitness naturally shift with age, says Richard Cotton, MA, chief exercise physiologist with and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise. Younger people, he notes, tend to place a greater emphasis on working out for the benefit of looking good, whereas the older set has begun to view working out with a wider lens – a whole-person perspective that focuses more on the feeling of health and vitality.

“The popular viewpoints on aging have definitely changed,” says Cindy Joseph, 55, a popular Ford model whose silver-haired image regularly graces J. Jill catalogs. “Our generation questioned everything – the government, the war, taxes, lifestyles, religion. We had to find a new life for ourselves because the examples we were given didn’t make sense to us. And, through our experiments, we’ve discovered that a lot of things that we were told are not true, especially when it comes to health and well-being.”

A devoted raw-foodist, Joseph indulges in a variety of exercise, from archery to belly dancing to walking to working out with a trainer. Her main goals? To have fun and to be healthy and fit. “I think it’s beneficial to be motivated by fun, instead of fear, when it comes to exercise,” she says.

Joseph’s own metamorphosis began about a decade ago, when she started to relax more about aging, trust herself and live her life according to what pleases her. Eight years ago, she even stopped coloring her gray hair. What did she learn during this transformational time? Simply that everything she had heard about aging was off the mark. “Every day, life got better and better. I was wiser and more confident. In every area of my life – my fitness, my relationships, my work, my leisure – I was experiencing so much increased pleasure and value and satisfaction that I thought, ‘When is this bad thing called aging supposed to happen?'” she says.

Beware “Boomeritis”

Orthopedic surgeon Nicholas DiNubile, MD, author of FrameWork: Your 7-Step Program for Healthy Muscles, Bones and Joints (Rodale, 2005), thinks it’s wonderful that so many older people are becoming more active. But he warns against getting ahead of our bodies lest we end up with “boomeritis” – the term he coined to describe the steep increase in sports injuries among the 50-plus crowd.

“It’s only during the past 100 years or so that we’ve basically doubled our life expectancy,” says DiNubile. The premise of FrameWork is that 100 years is a relatively small amount of time, and evolution hasn’t had a chance to make the necessary changes to our bodies that will help us keep up with scientific advancements. “There is a mismatch between our longevity and our durability,” he explains.

That’s not to say older people shouldn’t exercise. They should, but they should also pay attention to some key age-related tips (see “Fit for the Ages,” below) and engage in low-impact, joint-friendly exercises like walking, cycling and swimming. The most important thing is to know your own body and to carefully extend or accept its limits, DiNubile says.

“It’s essential to be active at any age. If you have healthy knees, you can run marathons into your 80s, like U.S. marathon runner John Kelley did,” he says. “But, if you have bad shoulders, then endurance swimming might not be your thing. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has said that you can’t push your body in the same way in your 40s as you did in your 30s, or in your 50s as you did in your 40s. He’s ‘The Terminator,’ and even he had problems with his rotator cuff.”

The most important fitness advice that I give my clients is to know your body and yourself, says life coach Cat Thompson (see “Real Life, Real Reasons,” below). “As a teacher of mine once told me, ‘You might not know what your yeses are, but you know what your no’s are. Say no to your no’s, and your yeses will show up.'”

Thompson says she thinks that some of the best mind-body advice available for anyone wishing to become and remain vital for a lifetime is simply this: Allow your yeses to show up – and when they do, embrace them with everything you’ve got.

is a Washington, D.C.–based freelance writer.

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Newsletter Signup
Weekly Newsletter
Special Promotions