The Current27:10At 99, swimmer Betty Brussel just smashed 3 world records
Betty Brussel has a lot to celebrate this year. The competitive swimmer just broke three world records in the pool — and is turning 100 years old in July.
But when she gets in the water, all of those big moments melt away.
“When [I] swim, I count my lanes … you can’t really think of anything else because you lose count,” said Brussel, who lives in New Westminster, B.C.
“It’s nice to get a medal. But when I have a good time, it’s fine,” she told The Current during a visit to the Guildford Aquatic Centre in Surrey, B.C.
Brussel crushed the world record in the 400-metre freestyle swim on January 20, competing in the 100-104 age category at a swim meet in Victoria, B.C. (Per competition rules, Brussel qualifies for the category because she will be 100 this year). She shaved almost four minutes off the previous record and went on to break two more records that day, in the 50-metre breaststroke and the 50-metre backstroke.
Experts say finding ways to stay active as you get older is an important part of staying healthy. But according to the Canadian Community Health Survey, only 40 per cent of Canadians over 65 met the recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise in 2021, the latest data available.
A report published in November by Statistics Canada’s health analysis division noted that physical activity does decline with age, but other factors such as lower income and education also contributed to physical inactivity.
Some researchers have delved into how older bodies react to exercise. In Ireland, sports scientist Lorcan Daly studied his own grandfather, 93-year-old Richard Morgan — a four-time indoor rowing world champion who only took up the sport at age 73.
The study suggested that when subjected to stimulating exercise, Morgan’s cardiopulmonary and respiratory systems reacted in much the same way as would a healthy young adult. The results were published in the Journal of Applied Physiology in December.
“The key takeaway there, we’d say, is that … the body will respond and adapt at any age,” said Daly, an assistant lecturer in sport and exercise science at the Technological University of the Shannon.
“Definitely no time is too late. Start now, I would say, for sure, because the body will respond.”
Learning to swim in canals
Brussel was born in the Netherlands, where she learned to swim in the canals around Amsterdam. She moved to Canada and settled in Grand Forks, B.C. in 1959, where she often swam for leisure as she raised her family. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that she first swam competitively at the age of 68, in what was then called the B.C. Seniors Games (now the 55+ B.C. Games).
“I did one lane [of] breaststroke, and I didn’t even do it right,” she said, laughing. “I’d never been taught anything. I just picked it up.”
Brussel is now part of a competitive team and swims twice a week. When she’s not in the pool, she tries to get out for a walk to stay active.
“I live on a hill. I go uphill slowly — and when I go down I go fast,” she laughed. “My kids are always [saying], “Mom, don’t go so fast!”
Guidelines published by the World Health Organization recommend “at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week for all adults,” and say that people aged 65 and older should add exercises that “emphasize balance and coordination, as well as muscle strengthening, to help prevent falls and improve health.”
Find an exercise that works for you
Researcher Mylène Aubertin-Leheudre has some simple advice for being more active: start with an activity you like, start small, and build from there.
“When you feel better and when you keep these habits in your lifestyle, you can start to do more specific exercise that will help you to improve your fitness,” said Aubertin-Leheudre, a professor specializing in aging and exercise in the department of physical activity at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
In North Vancouver, 87-year-old Barrie Street is a regular at his local gym, and even runs a website where he offers fitness tips for older people. He said exercise doesn’t have to involve running, biking, or even going to the gym.
“You might try yoga, tai chi, social dancing, walking, stretching — somewhere you’ll find an activity with your name stamped on it,” Street said.
“Even lining up at Tim Hortons … I’ll be stretching in the lineup. Back stretches. Legs stretches. Lunges. Squats. People think I’m weird, but that’s okay,” he said with a laugh.
Aubertin-Leheudre pointed out that exercise can also be a boost for mental health, and opens up new social circles.
That’s certainly been the case for Brussel, the 99-year-old record-breaking swimmer. Her coach, Linda Stanley Wilson, said Brussel is a regular at the swim club’s social events, and usually one of the last people to leave.
“When you get older, most of my friends have either died or gone in homes … and I like to be with people,” Brussel said.
Aside from celebrating her 100th birthday, her hopes for 2024 are to just keep swimming.
“I’m basically a happy person, you know?” she said.
Audio produced by Anne Penman and Ines Colabrese. This story is part of The Current’s new series Well Founded, which digs into the wellness industry and how to make sense of all the pitches on how to be a better you.