Not many years ago, 50 was considered the age at which people became grandparents, dangerously cautious drivers and serious canasta players.
Today, 50-and-over men and women turn sidewalks into playgrounds as they jog along in $80 shoes and demeanors ranging from joyful through determined to agonized.
Among the nation's 13 million joggers are more than 600,000 men and women who have lived half a century or more, said Jennifer Young, co-director of the National Running Data Center in Tucson, which keeps track of such details.
Why these semi-centenarians take up pavement pounding, and what keeps them at it, is the subject of a study by Keith Johnsgard, a 57-year-old San Jose State College psychology professor who seven years ago pulled on his first pair of running shoes to run his first mile because he wanted to accompany his son. He is fast approaching his 30th pair of shoes and 11,000th mile.
The questionnaire Johnsgard used is reproduced on Page 5, so that runners can compare themselves with participants in the psychologist's study.
Physical, Mental Benefits
"The most fascinating results of my study are that we start running for both physical and mental benefits, and as time goes on the mental become more and more powerful and the physical drop off some," the professor said.
For most over-50 runners who have run for a few years, Johnsgard said, "The strong initial motives concerning physical fitness and weight control both decrease slightly in value, while those initially important motives which dealt with tension reduction, mood elevation, increased energy and identity become even stronger.
"Basically, the results of the test indicate we run for three important reasons: physical health (and I throw weight control in there), emotional health and mood control," Johnsgard said.
To arrive at his results, Johnsgard surveyed 180 members of the 50+ Runners Assn., "very experienced American distance runners from all over the United States." Men who took part averaged 56 years of age and had run an average of 26 miles a week for a decade. Women averaged 53 years old and had run an average of 24 miles weekly for six years.
But the study applies to more than "very experienced" runners.
Some of the people in Johnsgard's sample ran 10 miles a week or less. "Older runners who put in less mileage report that a short run immunizes them from the day's stresses and energizes them for greater productivity," Johnsgard said. "I'm convinced that running increases both the quantity and quality of our lives."
While running, in general, may be a good thing, physicians warn that runners--especially new runners--must be careful.
Knowing the Signals
"The person who has been running for years usually knows the signals if something goes wrong, and he or she can do something about it," said Dr. Albert A. Kattus, a Brentwood cardiologist who is a clinical professor of cardiology at UCLA Medical School and former chair of the Exercise Committee of the American Heart Assn.
"But even the person who has been running for years, when he or she gets to the age of 40 or above, should have an exercise electrocardiogram on a treadmill or a stationary bicycle once every two or three years.
"The tests are not foolproof," Kattus continued, "but they are the most effective things we have to get the pertinent information.
Of course, the ones we worry about most are runners who have been sedentary most of their lives and then get the idea that running is a way to renovate health and get back vigor. Those people should definitely have an exercise electrocardiogram before they do any running.
"I definitely support the idea of people exercising at any age, so long as they know it's safe for them," Kattus said. "Running is one of the best ways to exercise, but people who haven't done any of it should start off walking, then fast walking, then jogging intervals andeventually jogging or running at whatever is a comfortable pace for them."
Amby Burfoot, the 38-year-old East Coast editor of Runners World magazine, is known in running circles as something of an expert on older runners.
Burfoot believes that runners gain something special when they begin or re-enter the sport at middle age or older.
"They tell the most gripping stories," Burfoot said, adding that perhaps "You have to have lost the youthful spirit of energy to realize how wonderful it is to have regained it.
"When the running boom began seven or eight years ago, I can remember many, many 'born-again' runners reading me laundry lists about everything that could be good and wonderful about life--better family life, better sex performance, more energy . . .," Burfoot said. "I thought these people were slightly batty, but then I heard it so often from so many people in the same kinds of terms that it became clear that there was something very significant happening to middle-aged runners."
Johnsgard agrees that running makes a significant difference. "People in general just don't know how powerful running is for making you feel good and feel good about yourself," he said. "The only way you can discover that is to just keep on running.
"The business of identity is important. It's important to say to yourself, 'I am a runner. I stay skinny. I eat differently. I am not part of the crowd, and I have control over my life.' "
Runners who participated in Johnsgard's study repeatedly told him they felt running gave them control over their lives. "They said, 'By God, I did something for myself today that antidepressants didn't do and my psychiatrist didn't do. I did it,"' Johnsgard said.
Random interviews with experienced runners indicated that all runners don't fit neatly into the word picture painted by Johnsgard's work. That didn't surprise the psychologist, who said:
"While most over-50 runners fit into the parameters of my study, as do younger runners from other research that I've done, there are, of course, runners who don't fit the mold." Floyd Doss, for example, began running at age 48 because "I thought I should be in better shape."
Today, at 65, the retired electronics technician from Mar Vista is a member of the Culver City Athletic Club, and runs about 40 miles a week because "I like to run. . . . fitness went out a long time ago as a reason for running. Now I just like to run."
Jim Knerr, another Culver City Athletic Club member, is a 51-year-old high school teacher from Simi Valley who started running eight years ago. Today he runs a mile in less than five minutes and logs about 100 miles a week. This month he'll travel to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National 20 Kilometer Race against runners from all over the nation.
"I began running for fitness," said Knerr. "Now my principal reason for running is that it gives me a great psychological lift."
Helen Dick, 60, holds national running records for her age and sex in four distances, according to the National Running Data Center. Dick's supremacy may be the reason she doesn't fit very well in the parameters of Johnsgard's study.
The Mandeville Canyon housewife said: "I have the national records in the marathon, the half marathon, the 10-K (kilometer) and the 5-K. I have records, actually, in anything I run, because I don't think any woman over 60 can beat me."
She began running 10 years ago "to be sure I kept my weight down," Dick said. "Now I'm hooked on running. Once you start you hate to stop. I don't run for fitness any more. I don't even think about that. Now I run to win. I like the competition. I also run because it's a high. Just going running makes me feel a lot better."
Barbara Vail, 53, is a Los Angeles school teacher and member of the Santa Monica Track Club who began running seven years ago because "a friend of mine had lost a great deal of weight and seemed to have a good time running. Today Vail runs 40 to 55 miles a week, and said she "can't imagine a day without running. When I do miss a day, I feel terrible." She runs to keep fit, for the challenge and, secondarily, for the psychological high it gives her.
Johnsgard recognizes that running can become an addiction, but he doesn't see that as a problem. "It's a healthy, positive addiction," he said. It's a lot better to be obsessed about running than about drinking, or eating, working yourself to death or fooling around with other people's spouses."
According to Johnsgard's study, running motives for women, in order of importance, are:
Initial motives (when they started running) Current Motives Fitness Fitness Slimness Afterglow Challenge Centering Feels good & Challenge Afterglow Feels good Centering Identity Identity Slimness Social Competition Competition Social Addictions Addictions
For men, the motives ranked in order, are: Initial motives (when they started running) Current Motives Fitness Fitness Challenge Challenge Slimness Afterglow Feels good Feels good Afterglow Slimness Identity Identity Centering Centering Competition Competition Social Social Addictions Addictions
If you wish to compare your motives for running with those found by Johnsgard, take the test below:
TEST OF MOTIVES FOR RUNNERS 50 AND OLDER. Instructions
The test requires choosing between pairs of the motives defined and listed below.
Each motive is paired once with each other motive. From each pair, select the motive that seems most important and check it off. Even if neither alternative of a given pair seems particularly important, a choice must be made to keep the scoring valid.
Take the test twice. The first time, answer the questions from what your point of view was when you started running. The second time, your answers should reflect your current state of mind about running.
Score the two tests separately. Just note on the score sheet the number of times each motive was selected. No motive can have a score greater than 9, and the total of all 10 scores must be 45 on each test.
When you have scored the tests, list your running motives in order for each test. The motives with the most points should be at the top of each list. The lists will indicate in rank order your motives for running, with the strongest motive first.
ADDICTIONS: To stop or to control anti-life habits such as smoking, drinking or drug use through endurance training.
AFTERGLOW: The elevated mood and reduced tension which follow endurance training. It makes me feel good.
CENTERING: Space to be alone, to clear my head, and to simply experience myself and the world around me. The psychological experience while training.
CHALLENGE: To challenge or improve myself through participation. To gradually perform better than I did in the past.
COMPETE: To challenge others and to define myself in relation to other competitors.
FEELS GOOD: The various rewarding physical experiences while training. The training itself feels good to me.
FITNESS: The cardiovascular and general physical fitness which follows regular endurance training.
IDENTITY: The independent definition of or statement about myself. I am an endurance athlete. It is my life style.
SLIM: To control weight and appetite through regular training.
SOCIAL: To meet new friends or to be with old ones through training, competition or club activities.
Fitness Feels Good
Addictions Feels Good
Slimness Feels Good
Centering Feels Good
Feels Good Compete
Identity Feels Good
Afterglow Feels Good
Feels Good Social
Challenge Feels Good
SCORE SHEET Initial Motive Current Motives Definitions Motives
Addictions Afterglow Centering Challenge Competition Feels good Identity Slimness Social