Sister Madonna Buder, new middleage

Meet The New Middle Age

Doctors and other experts offer insights on modern day aging

When 86-year-old Sister Madonna Buder, a triathlete known as the Iron Nun, popped up in a Nike commercial called Unlimited Youth this summer, she raised questions as to what aging really looks like today.

Buder is the oldest woman to have ever completed the Hawaii Ironman, and to some extent, she’s an extreme example of how age is little more than a number. But there’s a wave of change surrounding how we think about growing older.

“For years we concentrated on longevity,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “Now we concentrate on health span, or what I love to call a vital span: the number of years in your life where you are as optimally vital as possible," she says. "There’s a huge shift from quantity to quality. If you do quality well, knock on wood, you have a greater chance of hitting longevity.”

An array of factors—nutrition, exercise, advancements in medical treatments and screenings, genetic predispositions, and mental health—contribute to that sweet spot of living vitally and living long. But these days, more people seem to be pushing the boundaries of conventional aging, giving credence to the idea that a new middle age, one that has little to do with clichéd milestone birthdays, is upon us.

What do the experts think about this? Below, four health professionals share their takes on aging, its future, and what we can all do right now.

Your Fitness Age Isn’t Your Chronological Age
“What I see is the development of a new normal. When you say 60 is the new what? It could be 45. It could be 50. [It’s] extraordinarily cool to see people who are 60 out there just cracking it. They’re briskly walking, they’re lifting their weights. They’re not afraid to come to that yoga or Pilates class. They’re taking up really neat cross-training. We’re redefining this new horizon—and it’s not just a few lucky people who may have some good genes. We gift people with hope whenever they read our science and our studies and they go, 'Oh, my god, I never knew.'"—Pamela Peeke, M.D., fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and a Senior Games triathlete

You Mindset Matters 
“In modern life we are vastly undervaluing functional health: how we condition our bodies through our lifestyle and, even more importantly, experientially. How does our mind directly influence our physiology and then get to our behavior patterns? There’s a woman in my practice who is 59 years old. She can deadlift 225 pounds five times. She can do ten pull-ups on her own. She’s a former chiropractor. And her girlfriends are like, 'you’re crazy'. What do they mean by that? Are you crazy or are they crazy? You look great. You have great energy. You feel well. They have all these aches and pains that they’re attributing to aging. That doesn’t add up.”—Justin Mager, M.D., a San Francisco bay area physician and exercise physiologist

The More Good You Can Do, The Better Off You’ll Be
“Any one health behavior is useful and has some potential value. But they are quite often additive. So, for instance, if you are keeping a great diet and exercising; weight controlling and controlling diabetes is much more likely. You can go on down the line with a number of these things, like regular medical check-ups, keeping mental health spirits up, and the like. It’s quite clear that the more of these you can do, the better off you are. Like anything, after a while there’s a little bit of a diminishing return because you maximized all of the potential. But, in general, I would recommend that you can keep addressing the ones that can be the most egregious, like diet and being sedentary. They go a long way.”—Thomas Prohaska, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Health and Human Services at George Mason University

Movement Can Be a Fountain of Youth
“At 65, my grandfather was old. He looked old and he moved old. Today, 65 is not the new 40, but it isn’t old, either. People are coming to the realization that they may live well beyond 65. Moreover, they want to enjoy those extra years with family and friends, not hobble around or be a burden to their families. Many older people see exercise as a means to that end. This is a newer trend and although exercise alone may not be the fountain of youth, it is a start.”—Bill Boland, an exercise physiologist and managing director of BodyFix