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Older Athletes Run For Science

March 21, 1990

Undated (AP) _ Athletes run for many reasons, but members of the Fifty-Plus Runners’ Association have found a new one: They run for science.

Of course, the members run for all those other reasons, too: keeping fit, losing weight, improving their heart and lungs, dealing with tension or depression, or becoming or staying competitive.

Their personal goals dovetail nicely with researchers’ desires to learn more about the effects of extended physical activity on older people.

″We see this organization as a role model, a pioneering group. It’s a whole new lifestyle for older men and women,″ said Keith Johnsgard, president of Fifty-Plus and a professor at San Jose State University in California. ″They don’t have to live the sedentary life that older people do or are expected to.″

Fifty-Plus is not a running club. Sponsored by the Center for Research in Disease Prevention at Stanford University, its goal is to gather a list of highly active seniors for researchers to plumb. Fifty-Plus has 1,600 members.

Topics already being studied include how continued physical exercise affects osteoarthritis and osteoporosis. Researchers have found that older runners, male and female, had about 40 percent more bone mineral - and no more tendencies toward osteoarthritis in their knees - than seniors who don’t exercise.

″Before this, it was generally thought that people who spent a lot of time running would invariably damage their knees,″ said Peter Wood, a biochemist, former Fifty-Plus president and co-author of the study.

Wood said good mineral density was important, especially for women, because it helped to prevent problems like dowager’s hump or osteoporosis.

Researchers also have found that Fifty-Plus members consumed 40 percent to 60 percent more calories daily than their sedentary peers - but had higher levels of the ″good″ cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein cholesterol), which has been associated with a relatively low risk of heart disease.

″When you are eating a good amount you are more likely to get an adequate supply of nutrients - and for women a good supply of calcium,″ Wood said.

The group’s most recent survey found that 85 percent of its members were men. They averaged 59.8 years old, have been running for 13.7 years, and covered 26.4 miles per week. Forty-five percent had completed a marathon (26.2 miles) and the vast majority had run at least one 10-kilometer (6.2 miles) race.

Fifty-Plus women averaged 58.8 years, had been running for 9.5 years, and covered an average of 21.2 miles a week.

Fifty-Plus is now looking for a corporate sponsor to help increase its membership and attract a wider group of scientists.

″We’d like to expand membership, and get some really good long-term studies going,″ Johnsgard said. ″Bring in some young, hot-shot epidemiologist who can study us until we’re all dead. We are too old to do the really long-term stuff.″

Several members cited the research emphasis as the reason they joined Fifty-Plus.

″The studies attracted me to it,″ said Kent Gartner, 56, a cell biologist at Memphis State University who has been running for 20 years.

″The research they’re doing is not only interesting, it’s important,″ said Bob Binzer, 67, of Madison, Ind. ″It’s inspiring, and you get good advice from the organization.″

Binzer was referring to the association’s quarterly newsletter, which summarizes research involving members and publishes health and sports-related articles.

″I really enjoy the newsletter and it’s great they’re doing this research,″ agreed Betty Brinkmann, 55, of Brighton, Colo. A dietician, she says she often uses information from the newsletter in her own work with cardiovascular rehabilitation patients.

Johnsgard, a clinical psychologist, has studied what prompts seniors to begin running and then keep running using Fifty-Plus members. The book that resulted, ″The Exercise Prescription for Depression and Anxiety,″ examines the beneficial effects of continued physical activity on seniors’ mental health.

The athletes get together once a year - Sunday this year at Stanford - for a seminar and business meeting, a generous pasta dinner and an eight-kilometer run. Age-group categories for the race begin at 50 and go up to 100 in five- year intervals, with nearly 400 runners expected.

″It’s a gathering of the brothers and the sisters - a tribal thing,″ Johnsgard said. ″People who exercise regularly in the U.S. are unusual, but people over 50 who exercise are extremely rare. It’s like coming home.″


For more information, write Fifty-Plus Runners’s Association, P.O. Box D, Stanford, Calif. 94305, 415-723-9790.

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