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."