Healthy Outlook: Meet the 77-year-old Lawrence man who can run circles around me
John Huchingson enjoys life soaking up the benefits of regular exercise
photo by: Ashley Hocking
What do you get when you cross a master’s in counseling psychology with a master’s in exercise physiology and a passion for practicing what you preach? A physically and mentally healthy person who can still shatter race records at a self-described “77 years young.”
More specifically, you get John Huchingson, of Lawrence.
Since he became a member of the very exclusive 75-79 age group, Huchingson has broken Kansas state records in 1-mile, 4-mile, 12K and 15K runs. (He broke the half-marathon record, too, but it was broken again last month.) That’s just a small part of his story and his message, though.
He’s been running “just to run” since age 16, before jogging became a trendy pastime. People would often ask him for which sport he was conditioning, and his answer — “I just enjoy running” — raised a few eyebrows.
“I don’t know why I was doing it, but I just enjoyed doing it,” he said.
His path led him to study under fitness pioneers such as Dr. Kenneth Cooper, known as the “father of aerobics,” and his career has been “mainly in education, with an emphasis on the fitness and activity area as it pertains, a lot, to the psychological benefits,” he said.
photo by: Ashley Hocking
His two fields of expertise are perhaps more intertwined than some might realize. For instance, the psychologist Huchingson will explain that we lounge on the couch because it gives the payoff of being comfortable. But over time, as we become obese, lose endurance and suffer from other health issues, we realize that this behavior is actually hurting us.
That’s when the exercise physiologist Huchingson jumps in, and he says the simpler you can make it, the higher the probability that you’ll do it. People don’t need to fret over minute details and complications, such as breathing in a certain way, wearing a certain kind of shoe or even driving to a gym five days a week, he said.
“It just becomes too involved,” he said. “It’s way too complicated, which is something that person doesn’t usually need in their life because their life is usually too complicated, anyway.”
He prefers to start people on a very simple path: just walk for five minutes a day for the first few days. Work up from there by adding an extra three minutes or so every few days.
“At the end of the month, you will be looking at easily 30 minutes and you’ll say, ‘How did I get here?'” he said. “So then once they get that far along, hopefully they will be able to internalize and introspect and see how they’re feeling compared to when they first started. … By that time, they should be able to feel such a benefit that they’ll want to continue.”
You can do it outside, or if necessary, you can even create a route around your home. (That’s how Huchingson manages to get his running “fix” if there’s lightning outside.)
From there, much of the rest of the journey to self-improvement follows organically.
“When you start working out, and you put effort and time into your workout, then you don’t want to sabotage that,” Huchingson said. “So, just subconsciously, you start eating better and watching what you eat … because you don’t want to sabotage all your hard work and the way you feel.
“And then you really feel better, because you start sleeping better,” he said.
With that work, your confidence in yourself and your abilities will grow, he said.
“When you have discipline, you can reach your goal,” he said. “When you reach your goal, that opens up so many different feelings and horizons for you.”
For instance, what may feel like an impossible dream of trekking to view stunning sights of Yellowstone National Park, backpacking through Europe or learning how to ski can become a tangible goal — at any age, Huchingson said.
“The human body adapts to overload at the age of 70 exactly the same as it does at the age of 20, only maybe not as fast, but the percent of adaptation is just as high,” he said. “You’ll increase your muscle strength, given where you start, by easily 50 percent in the first month, because we know that strength is increased very dramatically, very fast.”
photo by: Ashley Hocking
Walking is one thing, but is it ever too late to start running?
“Absolutely not. As long as you can pull your oxygen tank behind you, and you do it right,” Huchingson said. “If you start off right, and you know you have the OK of your medical professional, you can start running at any time.”
And it has a lot of health benefits, he said. For instance, diabetics could potentially get to the point of cutting out insulin, because exercise can help burn excess sugars in the blood.
A history of knee injuries is a common deterrent he’s heard, but he said running actually increases the density of the cartilage and thickness of the ligaments and tendons around the knees. It’s a big benefit, and it’s safe as long as you run in a fairly straight path and your momentum isn’t shifting frequently, the way it might in playing basketball or other sports.
In sharing his story, Huchingson noted another attractive selling point of staying active for life.
“Every day when I get up, I walk around and I’m amazed at the spring in my legs, my breathing,” he said. “… I’m just amazed, amazed at myself and how wonderful it still feels to be alive.”
Now, running a comfortable, near-daily 6 or 7 miles, Huchingson said no matter how he feels before he runs, he always feels even better afterward.
“My age goes from 77 to 45 in that first step,” he said. “I’m like I was 32 years ago when I take that first step. I feel the same way. I have no aches and pains. I feel like I’m floating, just like I did back then.”
What’s next for him?
“I’m looking forward to hitting 80, so I can start breaking these 80- to 84-year-old records. Very doable, very doable,” he said. “But even if I didn’t have any other records, I’m going to run until I die.”
StoryMap: John Huchingson’s runs around the world
John Huchingson, 77, of Lawrence, has traveled all over the world for races and other activities. Check out an interactive map that includes some photos from a few of those adventures, courtesy of his wife, Janet Huchingson.
Healthy Outlook is a column written by Journal-World reporter and Health section editor Mackenzie Clark, in hopes of helping readers make their lives a little bit happier, healthier and more active.