Let’s face it, exercise is part of the Williams culture. Even among the students who do not play a sport, there are plenty of activities in which to engage: running, biking, swimming and working out at the gym. We know it’s good for us, but most of us probably don’t think of its long-term benefits in the coming decades. For most students, their departure from the College also marks a departure from their active, exercise-driven lifestyles. Most will trade in their gym shorts and sneakers for dress slacks and a cushy office job. Running 15 miles a week 60 years down the road is just out of the question.
Then there’s Walter Bortz ’51, who, at the age of 80, has run a marathon every year for four decades, most recently the Boston Marathon in April. He has no plans to stop any time soon. “If you can run a marathon, you don’t need a doctor,” he said, only half-joking. “That’s your check-up.”
Bortz is a living example of the research he has done over the course of his career. As a professor at Stanford’s medical school, he has spent the past several decades studying the process of aging and the factors that can extend and improve life. In his numerous books and more than 150 journal publications, the core element that has emerged is the importance of physical activity. “It’s never too late to start, but it’s always too soon to stop,” he said. These words have become something of a motto throughout his career.
The interest in health runs in the family. Bortz’s father, a prominent physician who was president of the American Medical Association (AMA), was a major inspiration for Bortz and a key figure in his life. As a student at the College, Bortz studied biochemistry and went on to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. When he was 40, his father died. Bortz was devastated by the loss and became depressed. “I knew how good exercise was for depression, so I started running,” he said. “The next year I ran my first marathon.”
Around the same time, he and his family moved to California, and he began working at Stanford. The school nudged him towards research in aging, which he said at the time didn’t exist as a legitimate field. Since then he has become one of the leading experts in the country on healthy aging, serving as the President of the American Geriatrics Society, co-chairman of the AMA’s Task Force on Aging and currently the chairman of the Medical Advisory Board for the Diabetes and Wellness Foundation.
Meanwhile, running has also continued to be an integral part of his lifestyle. Both he and his wife only seriously began running in their 40s, but they still run several times a week and together have done dozens of marathons around the world. “It does get easier – you know you’re not going to die on the 20th mile,” Bortz said.
In fact, marathons have become something of a family tradition: All four of their children have finished at least one, and one of their nine grandchildren has already completed a marathon, and there are likely more on the way. “My wife and I have promised $1000 to any of the others that do a marathon,” he said.
While Bortz knows a great deal about the biochemical reasons running is so beneficial, he has also done some anthropological study of the topic that suggests that running has been an important part of human evolution – long before spin classes and the elliptical, our ancestors ran. Ultimately, though, Bortz is not a running guru. “Physical exercise is the evolutionary force,” he said. “It’s not running, just exercise.”
This may seem obvious today, when studies left and right are spouting the benefits of exercise, but there is still a widespread belief that frailty and infirmity are inevitable as the decades slip by. Bortz rejects this idea. “Use it or lose it sounds like a trite or trivial aphorism, but it’s what happens,” he said. If people continue to be active – physically, socially and mentally – regardless of their age, they will reap the benefits.
Bortz’s research offers important lessons for us to keep in mind as we go into the real world. Also, we may be good at the exercise part of the equation, but among other essential aspects of a healthy lifestyle, Bortz identifies one that most students could probably work on even now: sleep.