Athlete for life: staying healthy and active in later life

by Paige Fieldsted

Looking at 70-year-old John Percival now you may not guess that he spent the majority of his life involved in athletics. He leans heavily on a cane, just three weeks removed from his second knee-replacement surgery this year. He had the other knee done 12 weeks ago.

John Percival in his home three weeks after having his second knee replacement surgery this year.

Percival’s smiling face turns sober and he chokes up when he’s asked about the surgeries on his knees.
“It’s been hard,” Percival said. “It’s really hard to not be able to do what you want to do. After we’ve been so active it’s hard not to be able to do.”
Percival’s attitude can be echoed by other seniors that aren’t ready to give up the active lifestyle they developed in their youth and as athletes.
Percival has been active for the majority of his life, playing sports from a young age. In high school he participated in football, wrestling and ran track occasionally.
Percival said he got involved in sports in high school because that was the cool thing to do.
“When you’re in high school it is the only thing to do,” Percival said laughing. “You’ve got to be in sports. You don’t get a girl if you not in sports.”
While Percival’s competitive football and wrestling career ended with graduation from high school, he continued his athletic ways by participating in horse racing and rodeo for years.
Percival said the activity level from his youth has carried over into his life now.
“I ran for a number of years until my knees when bad. Then we played with the horses,” Percival said. “It carries over to make a guy more active and it’s carried onto this day.”
Percival isn’t alone in carrying his active lifestyle into his later years. A study published by the “Journal of Aging Studies” showed that younger athletes expect to stay active as they age and that older adults who were athletes have been more active as they got older.
Percival said that up until August, two months before his first knee surgery, he walked four to five miles every day.
Being healthy and active throughout his life has paid off for Percival as he said his two knee surgeries have gone better because he took care of his health right up until the surgeries.
His two knee replacement surgeries were performed only nines week apart.
“I think that being active and in good shape helped with the knee operations,” Percival said. “I think I got along better because the good shape that I was in.”
At his most recent physical therapy appointment doctors told Percival that he is physically three to four week ahead of other patients that had knee surgery the same day as him.
Dr. Steve Aoki, an orthopedic surgeon in sports medicine at the University of Utah Orthopedics Center said that older people don’t heal as well as the younger athletes he works with but that being in better physical condition usually helps.
“Although probably true, that isn’t always the case,” he said. “They certainly don’t rush their rehab like a younger athlete is trying to push it and get back to their sport at a sooner time period. For a lot of our more recreational older athletes there is not that rush.”
Percival attributes the cause of his knees going bad to genetics, but that isn’t the case for all athletes that have to have surgery later in their life. Some older adults have to joint surgery because of participation in the sports they love so much.
Aoki said that athletes often pay later in life for the activities they did in their younger years.
“It becomes a combination of both, genetic factors cause breakdowns of joints and soft tissues and also your activity level plays in,” he said. “It’s pure biomechanics. It’s similar to a car, the more you use a care the more chance you have of that car breaking down in the future. If you subject your body to a lot of stress throughout the lifetime you have a higher risk of joint damage later on.”
Percival’s wife, Lonnie Kay Percival, said she has seen his active lifestyle benefit his health beyond his knee surgeries.
Lonnie Percival, who has never been an athlete, said she can see the differences in the way they have aged and been able to maintain their health.
“He is a lot healthier than I am,” she said. “My back always hurts and I have high blood pressure and cholesterol. He has never had any of those problems.”
A study published by the “American Journal of Sport Medicine” showed that many of the disabilities that plague older adults are modifiable with exercise. Losing muscle mass and bone mineral density can be prevented with low impact exercises.
Another study published by the “Journal of American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons” supported that same data. The article suggested that 30 to 50 minutes of aerobic exercise a day performed three to five days a week and resistance exercises twice a week could produce significant health benefits.
“To prevent more catastrophic injuries staying well conditioned is important,” Aoki said. “Minimizing high impact activities, and allowing your body to not see the same the stresses over and over will help prevent injury.”
Percival’s involvement in athletics and sports has benefitted him well outside the realm of health, as he said he learned good sportsmanship and the importance of being competitive.
Percival said the biggest impact sports has had on his later life is the competitive nature he was first exposed to in high school. From the work force to family relationships competitiveness has been in every aspect of Percival’s life.
“It’s a competitive world so you need to learn to be competitive,” he said. “In my work life I’ve always tried to do better than someone else so I could get a better job. It’s paid off in terms of better jobs throughout the years.”
Percival has worked many jobs throughout his life from a police officer in his younger years to the plumber he was when he retired five years ago.
The competitive spirit hasn’t just benefited Percival in his work life but has also helped him build better relationships with many of his grandchildren.
“I’m a big BYU fan and not all of my grandchildren are,” Percival said. “It’s fun being around them and teasing each other.”
Lonnie Percival said she has seen his competitive spirit come through during his recovery from knee surgery as well.
“He gets up and does his exercises twice a day and walks and walks and walks because he can’t stand to stay down,” she said. “I would just take a pain pill and go back to bed.”
Percival said he has every intention of continuing his active ways once his knees have healed completely and is planning a trip with his wife to Guatemala in February.
“I think with the new knees I’ll be able to get back to being active,” Percival said. “I’ll get back to walking and riding and the things I want to do.”