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From Parade Magazine
Ninety-four-year-old Olga Kotelko, a retired schoolteacher from West Vancouver, Canada, could be the poster child for late bloomers. Seventeen years ago, at 77, she entered her first “masters” track and field competition, for participants age 35 and over. At 85, she knocked off nearly 20 world records in a single year. Today, she is the only woman in the world over 90 still long-jumping and high-jumping competitively.
How does Olga continue to compete? Why does she feel, today, practically the same as she felt at 50? Around the continent, more and more researchers are studying so-called “super seniors” like Olga, who appear to be applying brakes to the aging process itself—defying the slide into a foggy decline, remaining sharp and healthy deep into old age.
“We think longevity is probably about 70 to 75 percent lifestyle,” says Angela Brooks-Wilson, Ph.D., a geneticist in the Genome Sciences Centre at the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver. That means just a quarter of healthy aging is about the protection you inherited, and up to three-quarters is determined by how you play the hand you were dealt.
This is excellent news. Will any of us be sprinting into our 90s, like Olga? Perhaps not. But can just about all of us be more like Olga? Absolutely.
Below, get six smart habits of super agers and watch Olga in action (in a video by myVancouver).
Swap the Sudoku for Sneakers
Even before she laced up her first track spikes, Olga was always active. As a kid on the Saskatchewan prairie, she and her 10 siblings played baseball with a rag-stuffed ball—and she was still playing up until age 75, when she began thinking about a new pastime after being plowed down in the outfield by an overzealous teammate chasing the same pop fly. A friend suggested masters track, and just a few months later, at her first international meet in Tucson, Olga launched the javelin 10 feet farther than her competitors’ marks. She soon hooked up with a coach—and started rewriting the record books.
As comprehensively as scientists know that exercise helps the body, they’re still learning how far it goes in shoring up the brain. Increasing evidence suggests that for fending off senior moments (“Where’d I leave my car keys?”), not to mention full-blown dementia, exercise works better than even those brain games touted to boost memory and function. A recent review of research by Norwegian scientists found that the gains people make on such puzzles don’t necessarily carry over into real life. “They’re not going to help you as you age, with, say, driving,” says Justin Rhodes, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “But exercise can help you improve across the board.”
Stay on Your Feet
At home—a tidy suite in the lower level of her daughter’s house—Olga rarely sits for long. She’s continually popping up to stir a soup, write a letter, or make a phone call. She climbs the stairs, she figures, “probably 50 times a day.” She switches on the TV only to watch her favorite game shows (Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!) or check the weather. Apart from a brief stint as a secretary after she left her family’s farm, she’s never had a desk job.
Olga’s life is anchored in rituals. If it’s Tuesday, she’s out bowling.Simply standing up more is the best thing sedentary people can do to start becoming healthier, maintains Joan Vernikos, Ph.D., the former director of Life Sciences for NASA and author of the book Sitting Kills. The painless act of rising from your chair pumps blood from the feet to the head, and tunes the vestibular system, which helps maintain blood pressure and keeps you steady on your feet.
Even a regular morning jog can’t compensate for being inert the other 23 hours of the day, research shows. Extended bouts of inactivity have been found to increase subjects’ risk of serious afflictions—including hypertension, blood clots, and even some types of cancer—no matter how “fit” those subjects were.
Eat Real Food
The Coach: Harold Morioka, Olga’s 70-year-old coach, is one of the most gifted masters athletes ever, the only runner of any age to break world records in every distance from 60 to 800 meters.(Photo: Grant Harder for Parade; Styling: Sarah Danniels/THEYrep.com; Grooming: Tamar Ouziel)
People are intensely curious about Olga’s diet. And while her eating habits are healthy—there’s very little processed food in her cupboards, for instance—they are by no means perfect. She is no stranger to carbs, often having toast in the morning (perhaps topped with cheese and honey) and bread again in her lunchtime sandwich. She likes her meat and she likes it medium-rare. At a baseball game she’ll down a hot dog and a beer.
Instead, it’s her approach to eating that may be an overlooked part of the puzzle. Olga eats four to five times a day, and not much in the evenings. She won’t skip meals or scarf fast food and count on a handful of supplements and vitamins to pick up the dietary slack. (She does take a baby aspirin each day to prevent blood clots, and glucosamine to shore up her joint cartilage, which takes such a pounding on the track.) A balanced diet ought to do it, she figures. Nature had a couple million years to get this right. Plus, she says, “food’s cheaper.”
Be a Creature of Habit
The Running Buddy: Christa Bortignon, 76, has set seven world records this year en route to the 2013 World Female Masters Athlete award. Without Olga as a mentor, she says, “I wouldn’t have even known masters track existed.” (Photo: Grant Harder for Parade; Styling: Sarah Danniels/THEYrep.com; Grooming: Tamar Ouziel)
There is no book, you will notice, called The Seven Ephemeral Whims of Highly Successful People. The reason: Habits work.
“What you have to do is just get yourself to the track,” says Olga’s friend (and fellow masters athlete) Christa Bortignon. There, she’ll dial up Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 on the iPod, circle the track twice, then jog it once. It’s as if Christa is turning the tumblers on a lock: Those small familiar actions cue the body that it’s showtime. “Your muscles have a memory,” she says. “They know.”
Under stress, people tend to fall back on routines—whether healthy or unhealthy. In a recent experiment, University of Southern California psychologist Wendy Wood, Ph.D., one of the world’s top experts in habit formation, found that students around exam time slipped into autopilot. It was habits—not cravings, as you might expect—that determined their food choices, for better or worse.
Olga’s own weekly calendar is anchored in rituals. Her mornings typically include a stretching routine; she adheres to a predictable bedtime. If it’s Tuesday, she is out bowling; if it’s Thursday, she is likely making pierogi in the basement of her church.
Cultivate a Sense of Progress
We all need the feeling that in some small ways we’re improving—or at least not backsliding—whether at the gym, at our jobs, or in our relationships. Without periodic doses of what psychologist Teresa Amabile, Ph.D., calls “small wins,” our morale craters.
The Legacy: A competitive volleyball player, Olga’s granddaughter Alesa Rabson, 23, enjoys a lush genetic inheritance. “Grandma has taught me there’s no excuse to be lazy,” she says. (Photo: Grant Harder for Parade; Styling: Sarah Danniels/THEYrep.com; Grooming: Tamar Ouziel)
Trouble is, chalking up wins becomes more difficult from midlife on, when it’s easy to feel like you’re getting slower and weaker by the day. Fortunately, there’s a remedy. The trick is to reframe progress so that it becomes a relative measure, not an absolute one. In other words, to move the yardsticks as you age.
This is something that masters track does ingeniously. Olga’s results are “age-graded,” meaning they are adjusted to account for the expected decline of the human body. And Olga applies the “move the yardsticks” strategy off the track as well. For instance, she still says yes to many social requests but not to all— increasing her fulfillment by cherry-picking the best life has to offer.
“People get stressed out over the smallest things,” Olga says. The fact that she doesn’t is as much a matter of choice as temperament. “Honestly, I don’t have the time.”
Not long ago, at an Illinois airport, as Olga moved toward security, other passengers began removing their shoes. But Olga didn’t. A sign said that you didn’t have to if you were over 75.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” a security agent asked Olga. “How old are you?”
“Ninety-three,” she replied.
The agent gaped at her. “You’re joking,” she said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. You’re … how old?”
“What’s your secret?” she finally asked.
“Enjoy life!” Olga replied.
The agent nodded as a grin infiltrated her face. Then she turned to her supervisor, somewhere behind the barrier, and announced, “I quit!”