Marathon runner Pushpa Keya Bhatt narrates what wake up call pushed her to begin taking her health more seriously, and why being a senior citizen does not have to be a hindrance in staying fit and active.
“You’re too old for this.”
For many looking to seek anything “unconventional” above the age of 60, this is commonplace to hear. Since time immemorial, we have put time limits on dreams and age limits on goals. Yet here is the story of a woman in her late sixties that stands out amid the crowd — Pushpa Keya Bhatt.
Ask the 66-year-old about a day in her life, and her answer will surprise you. “I work out 17 to 20 hours a week,” she says in conversation with The Better India.
This intensive training is much needed for the Mumbai resident, who is an active partaker in marathons, and has nine ultra-marathons and 11 full marathons under her belt. But despite all that she has achieved, Pushpa’s journey hasn’t been the easiest one.
The road to success has been paved with a multitude of challenges, but the sexagenarian says “bring it on”.
A wake-up call in her thirties
“As a single mother to my three-year-old daughter, I would often worry about how she would look after herself in my absence,” says Pushpa, who was an HR professional at the time. Age was catching up and being part of the corporate world did not make things easy.
“The sedentary lifestyle and stress took a toll on me and I began developing back and knee issues,” she explains.
Then one day she decided that worrying would not yield a solution and that she must, instead, take steps to feel better.
Pushpa heard about a 7-km ‘dream run’ being conducted in Mumbai by Standard Chartered (now the Tata Mumbai Marathon), and says she was under the impression it would be simple.
“It was only when I had run for 15 minutes that I realised marathons were no piece of cake.” She adds that at the time, she wasn’t aware that one can regulate their speed while running a marathon, and sprinting the entire distance is not needed.
Determined to get better, Pushpa began running every day in an attempt to improve her stamina.
‘Marathons gave me a thrill of sorts.’
After days of practice, the then 47-year-old was able to run for an hour straight at one marathon. The feeling was amazing, she recalls.
In Pushpa’s dictionary, “impossible” is a word that doesn’t feature anywhere. Her milestones, she explains, have been at ages where society would expect people to retire and take a backseat.
She says, “At the age of 46, I started gymming, and at the age of 60, I learnt cycling. At 64, I completed a course in nutrition from the American College of Sports Medicine.”
“In 2020, I started pilates and yoga, and during the lockdown, I completed a Clinical Nutrition course in Manali that taught me medical nutrition,” she says.
Among the challenges that Pushpa has partaken in are the 72 km Khardung La High Altitude Challenge; the Berlin Major (2019); the Tata Mumbai Marathon in which she has four age category podiums; the Satara Hill Half Marathon for five consecutive years where she has four age category podiums; and the World Majors in New York (2018).
Has achieving these feats been easy at this age?
“Certainly not. Often, people only see the wins. But there is a lot of work that goes into these wins.”
“I work on my muscles and don’t eat too many carbs. It does not come easy. But what I always say is, work on yourself while you have the time. Work harder as you age.”
Recounting one such instance where she learnt from her shortcomings, Pushpa says that during the 2019 Khardung La marathon, she fell short of completing by four minutes in the fourteen-hour cutoff. So, she took it up as a challenge and prepped well.
“This year, I ran again at the 72 km challenge and finished it four minutes earlier, winning a bronze in age category,” she says.
“I remember the scene — 500 people standing along the markets of Leh and chanting my name. The market was reverberating with their words of encouragement and it is my most cherished memory.”
Today, Pushpa is among the oldest to complete the Khardung La 72 km challenge.
Keeping fit at 66
Ask Pushpa what keeps her going at 66, and she says it’s the fact that running is exhilarating.
“The energy of the crowd that pulses through the air is unlike anything else. After my first marathon, that memory stayed with me and I couldn’t stop. If I can, everyone can.”
For senior citizens out there, Pushpa shares seven tips that have kept her going.
Sleep is vital
“Correct your circadian rhythm,” she advises, adding that it is important to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
“Try and get your sleep between 11 pm and 7 am.”
Sunshine is your best friend
What has worked for Pushpa all these years is going out in the sunlight as soon as she is up. “It energises you and makes you feel ready to take on the day,” she says.
Exercise, exercise, exercise
“Brisk walking is okay, but alongside, engage in some form of vigorous exercise,” she says. “Do this five to six times a week so your muscles and bones are getting their share of activity and toxins are being cleared out of the body.”
Caffeine shouldn’t be the start of your day
Substitute the caffeine with warm water and you will see the wonders it does for you, she says.
Reduce the junk
“Try eating more homemade food,” advises Pushpa. “Let’s say you’re ordering from out five times a week. Reduce this to two times. Work towards one cheat meal a week.”
Ditch sugar, wheat and milk
“I came to realise that dairy isn’t very good as animals are injected with hormones and this leads to the production of imbalance in the body,” she says. Pushpa adds that having dahi, pulses, sprouts, lentils, and green leafy vegetables instead can boost health.
“I have eight egg whites a day and one egg yolk,” she adds.
‘Me time’ is important
“At the end of the day, have some time where you disconnect from everyone. Do something that relaxes you,” says Pushpa, adding that she listens to podcasts to unwind.
“A cold shower, a long walk, watching the sunset, anything that helps you feel good.”
‘Life does not end at 60’
Pushpa says that often, senior citizens are made to believe that they have worked hard in life and need to sit back at 60.
“I continue to have two sources of income and don’t sit in an easy chair. I go out every day even today and work.”
She adds that age norms are not the only ones she has been focused on breaking. Pushpa Keya Bhatt has taken her daughter’s name as her middle name, contrary to society’s norms of taking the husband’s name.
“Women do not need to choose to take a backseat and be second citizens in their own lives,” she says. “Make yourself your own project.”
Pushpa is now preparing for the ‘border 100 km’ in Jaisalmer in December, followed by the Tata Marathon, New Delhi Marathon and Tata Ultra Marathon.
“Have ambition, have a fire, and make the dream come true,” she says.
Edited by Divya Sethu