The oldest marathon runner in the world is Fauja Singh, an Indian-born British citizen. Singh is a Sikh, and was dubbed the “Turbaned Tornado” by the British media after he took up the sport at the age of 89. Running in the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2003, he set the current world record for marathoners over the age 90 by completing the course in 5 hours and 40 minutes, at the age of 92. Citing old age, Singh recently announced that he will retire from competition after running in the Hong Kong Marathon on February 24, five weeks before his 102nd birthday. However, Singh says that he will continue to run at least four hours each day in order to “inspire the masses.”
Obviously, these elderly marathon runners are in very good overall physical condition, but even seniors who are not as healthy or physically fit can and do safely enjoy and benefit from much less strenuous regular exercise.
Alan Magill, the program director at the Ateret Avot assisted living facility in Midwood, Brooklyn, says that its daily moderate exercise programs are among the most popular activities for residents, most of whom are in their 80’s and 90’s. In addition to a daily morning program of gentle stretching, Ateret Avot brings in a professional trainer twice a week to lead more focused half-hour exercise sessions, conducted separately for men and women. The exercises are designed to help the seniors avoid the danger of injury due to falls by working to maintain their sense of balance, build up their muscle tone and strength, and improve their hand-eye coordination. Some of the exercises are specifically designed to enable more physically-limited residents to participate while seated in a chair.
Other planned daily activities for residents are also designed to get them moving, sometimes in conjunction with Jewish musical entertainment. The group dynamics from joint participation yield additional benefits to the residents by strengthening their sense of community and shared experiences.
According to Magill, “they serve as social outlets, encouraging the seniors to come out of their shells. It encourages them to participate. These seniors think they know what they can do, but once they get involved, they often discover that they can do more than they think they can.
“There is also an element of mind over matter. When elderly people exercise, it releases endorphins in their brains which make them feel better. Once they start exercising regularly, their stamina improves and many of their minor aches and pains start going away. This, in turn, leads to a better overall attitude simply because they are enjoying their life more.”
Even some of the men at Ateret Avot who spend most of their time sitting and learning Torah every day are motivated to join in the exercise groups because they understand they need it to protect their health, which is also a part of their religious obligations.
One of the residents, Lillian Bernstein, who has been at Ateret Avot for five years, says she looks forward to the half hour exercise sessions every Tuesday and Thursday which make her feel “more invigorated, alive and awake.” She believes that the exercises have given her more stamina and reduced the aches and pains in her knees and waist. She particularly enjoys exercising to soft Jewish simcha music, and using isotonic exercises while sitting in a chair which build up muscles that she doesn’t often use in her upper body and arms.
Some of these programs, including the trainer-led exercise groups, are also open to seniors living in the surrounding community who wish to participate in the Ateret Avot Social Club. They are invited to sign up to come in for a few hours of activities and then return home.
There are many gyms and Jewish community centers throughout the New York area which offer reduced rate memberships for senior citizens, as well as special exercise classes designed to accommodate participants with physical limitations. In addition, there are senior citizens centers in New York City which offer various types of physical fitness activities and classes for free, or in return for a voluntary contribution.
According to Ellie Kastel, the executive director at the Boro Park Y, 500 seniors participate in all of the Y’s activities, and not just those which were designed specifically for senior citizens. Age is no limitation. She has one member who is 103 and comes to the Y regularly, twice a week, to use the swimming pool. Some of the older participants come to the Y accompanied by their home health aids.