Tom Langenfeld can’t jump as high as he used to when he was a college student competing in track and field meets, but that hasn’t curbed the 80-year-old’s enthusiasm for the sport.
The Edina octogenarian still sails over the bar headfirst with ease, routinely setting records for his age group.
For Langenfeld, the bar literally has lowered considerably since he started jumping. Age has forced him to modify his game.
“Even if you’re in good physical shape, it’s a fairly straight decline,” he said of his athletic abilities. “But that challenge is still there to do better than you did before. I’m kind of addicted to it.”
This month, he will show off his textbook form, joining thousands of other athletes age 50 and above competing in the National Senior Games. The Twin Cities area is hosting the Olympic-style event July 3-16 — featuring more than 800 sports including cycling, basketball, swimming, tennis and track and field.
With age comes an inevitable loss of speed and strength. In addition, recovery after exercise takes longer. But with a few adjustments, say doctors, exercise physiologists and trainers, we can all stay in the game in our 50s, 60s and beyond.
Even those who are in great shape and active their whole lives will see their athletic prowess change with time as their bodies change.
“There’s clearly a slowing down,” said Tom Allison, director of the Mayo Clinic’s Sports Cardiology Clinic and an associate professor of medicine.
“You can’t perform at the same level,” he said. “I see patients every day who say, ‘I think there’s something wrong with my heart. I can’t keep up.’ The first thing I say to them is: ‘How old are the people you’re playing with?’ ”
Among the physical changes that come with age: less endurance due to decreased lung capacity, which makes it harder to get oxygen into the bloodstream; loss of muscle mass and strength, and declining testosterone levels in men. In addition, tendons and muscles get stiffer as the body ages, making them more susceptible to injury.
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Suzy Boerboom, 66, sees firsthand the challenges people face as they exercise past their athletic peak years.
A nurse and the co-founder of Welcyon, a Twin Cities-based chain of fitness clubs that cater to the 50-plus crowd, she said many members are avid golfers, tennis players and runners. They still have that competitive drive, but their goals are different, she said.
“Now it’s about staying healthy and not as much about performance,” she said.
Unlike traditional weight systems, the circuit weight system at Welcyon is powered by air to provide resistance to muscles. The amount of weight lifted is the same, Boerboom explained, but it’s being done in a slow-motion movement that is easier on joints and muscles.
Even though muscle mass diminishes with aging, strength training can restore it.
According to a Welcyon analysis of 77,000 strength workouts done by gym members over three years, the average person doubled his or her strength in a year, Boerboom said.
At the Welcyon gym in Edina, Don Raymond shows no sign of slowing down.
The 81-year-old Edina resident started working out a few years ago after he had three stents put in because of heart disease. Now, he exercises three times a week and has earned a reputation as a push-up guru. For his 80th birthday, he did 80 push-ups. Not content with that achievement, he’s already setting new goals.
“Now I’m thinking, I’m almost 82, well, I suppose a guy should think about doing 100 when he’s 100,” Raymond said.
The desire to keep playing past our prime instead of heading for the sidelines may be a reflection of changing generational attitudes about getting older.
“Those of us who are baby boomers, we felt we could change the world. I think we did in many ways,” Boerboom said. “We said we’re going to redefine what aging looks like. It’s vitality, rather than fading away.”
Allison agreed, adding that many boomers don’t want to give up the spotlight.
“We are a heavily engaged generation, both occupationally and mentally and physically,” he said. “We don’t want to quit playing the sports. It’s part of our mentality.”
Sherwood Sagedahl, 76, of Fairmont, Minn., holds two world records in his age group for the outdoor pentathlon — made up of the long jump, javelin, 200-meter run, discus and 1,500-meter run.
He’ll be competing at the Senior Games and said he finds joy in pushing himself to do his best.
“You can still do better than you think you can do, even at this age,” he said. “I surprise myself sometimes.”
For Langenfeld, participating in the Senior Games brings out the same competitive juices from his younger days jumping in college track meets.
“You get really charged up,” he said. “Those feelings seem to be pretty similar — but you don’t take the losses quite as hard.”
As he prepares to tackle the high jump again, his strategy is simple: Keep fighting and not be bothered by age.
“You know the decline is inevitable, and part of the challenge is to limit that decline,” he said. “To not accept it gracefully.”