One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is, “am I too old for exercise to make a difference?” The answer is always a great, big, resounding, “NO.” Indeed, this message is so vital that I’ll soon be sharing a podcast episode dedicated entirely to guidance for those looking to start (or return to) exercise in their 50s and beyond.
Substantial evidence from intervention studies and observational research has demonstrated an array of positive health effects of physical activity in older populations, but sometimes, the most powerful inspiration comes instead from the stories of individuals. Recently, I came across an example of such a story – one so remarkable it simply needed to be shared, and which I hope will serve to remind all of us, regardless of age or fitness level, that exercise is a critical element of any formula for healthy aging.
Meet Richard Morgan, a 93-year-old rowing champion
Twenty years ago, Richard Morgan, a then-73-year-old retiree from County Cork, Ireland, attended one of his grandson’s college rowing practices. Though Morgan hadn’t devoted any attention to physical activity in his life up to that point, the coach offered to let him use one of the machines, and he accepted.
Fast-forward to present day, and 93-year-old Morgan is a four-time world champion in indoor rowing, most recently winning the 2022 title in the 90-94 age division. He rows nearly 20 miles every week, mainly (~70%) at low intensity, with 20% at moderate intensity and 10% at high intensity. Altogether, he is estimated to have achieved a cumulative rowing distance of nearly ten times the circumference of the Earth over the last two decades, in addition to maintaining a resistance training regimen with dumbbells approximately twice per week.
And recently, he’s attracted the attention – and amazement – of researchers investigating aging and physical performance.
A case study in healthy aging
As we’ve discussed on numerous occasions on The Drive, studying the oldest members of society (nonagenarians, centenarians, and beyond) can provide insights on the science and processes of aging – for instance, whether losses in muscle mass and cardiorespiratory fitness are inevitable with advancing age or are instead at least partially explained by a reduction in physical activity level. So when news of Richard Morgan’s physical prowess reached investigators in Ireland and the Netherlands, they invited him to undergo various physiological and performance tests in the hope of shedding light on these questions.
The results, published in a brief report this past December, astounded the investigators. Body composition measurements determined Morgan to have high muscle mass (105 lbs; 80.6% of total body mass) and a body fat percentage of 15.4% – values that would fall within a healthy range for a man half his age. Equally impressive were his metrics of cardiopulmonary function and physical performance. Morgan’s forced vital capacity, a measure of lung function, was reported to be 3.36 L, a value more typical of men in their 40s or 50s. In a 2,000-meter time trial on a rowing ergometer, the nonagenarian demonstrated exceptional cardiovascular adaptation to exercise, with his heart rate rapidly rising to a peak of 153 beats/min and oxygen uptake kinetics (a measure of time required to adapt to a changing metabolic load) approximating those of a healthy man in his 30s or 40s. These results were all the more remarkable given that Morgan had only started exercising in his 70s – building up his fitness, as he says, “from nowhere.”
Exercise: a powerful intervention with no expiration date
The study authors admit that genetics may play some part in Richard Morgan’s age-defying fitness, and in the absence of baseline data from before he took up rowing, we cannot know to what extent his current physical health is attributable to the deliberate addition of exercise to his daily routine (though it certainly would have contributed significantly). But even with these caveats in mind, we can nevertheless derive important lessons from his experience.
For one, it shows us that the so-called “normal” trajectories of age-related physical decline are not predestined and unavoidable. The mere fact that Morgan exhibits the body composition and cardiovascular fitness expected of a much younger man is evidence that the human body is capable of sustaining a high level of physical health far longer than many assume could be possible, and collective evidence from research strongly indicates that regular exercise is a necessary and powerful means for achieving this.
But perhaps the most inspiring aspect of Morgan’s story is that no one is ever too old to reap the benefits of physical activity. One of Morgan’s grandsons (also an author on the case study) describes his grandfather as having shown “huge benefits in sense [sic] of mood and energy levels” since he incorporated rowing into his life in his early 70s, and other evidence tells us that even later starts can see similar rewards. So I cannot emphasize enough that there is no such thing as “too old to exercise.” I’ve often praised its many benefits, and when it comes to health and longevity, this particular prescription comes with no expiration date.
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