Learning > Inspiration

Not just any grandparents' holiday: Seniors are getting fitter, going faster and wandering farther

Lee Siew Hua on 24 Nov 2019

The Straits Times


Facebook Email

Seniors here are getting fitter, going faster and wandering farther as they unlock new adventures later in life


Mr Lim Tiong Jee, 71, is fitter now as a retiree than he has ever been his entire life.


"I wanted to gear up to spend my retirement meaningfully, not as a couch potato," says Mr Lim, a former manager in a petrochemical multinational corporation.


So a few years before retiring at 62, he started walking in his neighbourhood. Since 2015, he has set the bar higher with 10km mass runs. Now, he perseveres with gym workouts, brisk walks or runs, up to six days every week. He has lost about 12kg over the years of his fitness journey.


He has also embarked on more rugged holidays. In the past two years, he has enjoyed short forest treks in Brunei and Malaysia.


"When you go through physical challenges - looking out for one another on slippery ground or hilly slopes - you bond more with your travel companions," says Mr Lim, who is married to a retired teacher in her 70s. They have two children and two grandchildren.


Active seniors who trek, cycle and run are changing the face of travel with their sense of adventure.


Freed from the constraints of cubicle life and no longer content to be stay-home grandparents, many of these independent retirees in their 60s and 70s started to get sporty only later in life.


While seeing the world is an aspiration for retirees, these seniors are now discovering sporty holidays as their fitness peaks.


After starting gently, they are conquering pinnacles in Nepal, cycling 900km over several days in Thailand or running marathons in scenic places.


This is a travel trend propelled by a happy confluence of smaller families and deeper pockets, besides lighter sports gear and a more imaginative choice of active itineraries.


A Klook survey on solo travel released last week found that at least 44 per cent of Baby Boomers (age 55 and above) from Singapore have gone on a solo trip. This figure either equals or outshines the rates of solo travel by younger cohorts: 24 per cent for Gen Z (age 18-24), 45 per cent for Millennials (age 25-39) and 43 per cent for Gen X (age 40-54).


Though younger wanderers might be expected to be more adventurous, the data reveals that it is the opposite, says the report by Klook, a travel activities and services booking platform.


Ms Vinnie Tan, a co-founder of Ace Adventure Expeditions, a trekking and mountain-climbing company, estimates that 15 per cent of her clients are aged 60 to 70. The over-55 age group forms 40 to 45 per cent of her travellers.


These mature clients often assert that they have lives of their own, she notes, a gradual mindset shift she has witnessed over 15 years in the industry.


"The generation before tended to view retirement as a time for caring for grandchildren. But with smaller families now, there are not as many grandchildren or they may be living overseas."


Ms Lucy Jackson, co-founder and director of Lightfoot Travel, a luxury tour operator, observes: "Multi-generation holidays are very popular for our clients in Asia, and we find that families want to do activities together. The older family members certainly don't want to be left out."


Joining in is entirely possible for seniors as they are fitter than earlier cohorts, more affluent and also more aware of the variety of travel experiences that abounds.


For instance, snorkelling, kayaking and stand-up paddle-boarding are fun and enticing for the mature set, as these sporty activities were not available in their younger days, says Ms Jackson.


Travel companies have also noted that sports equipment is more lightweight and affordable now - a boon to older travellers who have no wish to dissipate precious energy or finances with bulky or pricey gear.


Decathlon, a French megastore that opened here in 2016, stocks affordable sportswear, shoes and gear for over 60 sports. Moreover, customers can also seek bargains online.


Walking tours, which are low-impact, are often a suitable start for seniors ready to try active holidays after a time of training.


Mr Paul Christie, chief executive of adventure company Walk Japan, which organises multi-day walking tours across the country, thinks mature travellers benefit much from an immersion in nature and culture.


"It promotes healthy ageing, it keeps their minds active, and the dose of nature has a huge impact on their wellness - something they might not get much of in today's highly-connected, developed society."


The average age range of his company's guests is 55 to 65 years old. Singapore is its third largest market after Australia and the United States.


From a medical perspective, trekking, cycling and running holidays are suitable for healthy seniors at an easy or moderate pace.


The caveat, of course, is that the senior traveller has to get fit with "sufficient, suitable training", says Dr Teh Kong Chuan, a senior consultant in the sports medicine department of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.


"As for the risks, it depends on the activities. Rock climbing would have a higher risk of injury - including more serious injuries - compared with a hiking or walking holiday," he says.


"As we get older, we should be mindful that our physical capabilities tend to deteriorate - strength, agility, reaction time, aerobic fitness and so on. It is always wise to be more moderate with the choice of such active holidays."


Most seniors tend to continue with activities they had pursued when younger, he adds, and would be willing to take the risks associated with their chosen sport, be it rock climbing, scuba diving or skiing.


With care, seniors need not shy away from sporty holidays.


Ms Tan from Ace Adventure Expeditions is constantly inspired by her elderly clients, including a man who celebrated his 70th birthday in August by slowly ascending Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with his wife, aged 68.


Older women, who feel liberated to explore rugged destinations after their children leave the nest, are also a very visible segment of her clientele.


They include Mandarin-speaking heartlander "aunties" who have scaled snowy peaks in China and unlocked their "hidden adventurous spirit".


"Age will inevitably slow us down somewhat,'' she says. "But it does not stop anyone from keeping the body strong and staying adventurous."


Additional reporting by Venessa Lee




Ms Irene Yeow, 66, has more than 100 medals from race walking and running competitions.


These accolades from local and international races, such as the Asia Masters Athletics Championships, have been a source of motivation for her for the past 20 years. They comprise a mix of top three placements and participation awards.


Lately, however, she focuses more on endurance challenges, such as mountain climbing.


"I stopped counting after I got 100 medals. It helps when I have a goal. I like a challenge, otherwise I get bored," says Ms Yeow in Mandarin. The part-time cleaner and hairdresser, who is divorced, has two sons in their 40s.


Ms Yeow, a member of the Red Hawk Sports Club, started exercising when she had more free time in her mid-40s, after her children went to university.


When she turned 54, her elder son encouraged her to push herself beyond taking part in 5km and 10km walking and running events. She started running marathons.


In the past six months, she has done two races in Malaysia and plans to run a half-marathon in Cameron Highlands next year.


Last month, she conquered the 5,025m summit of Dafeng peak in the Siguniang Mountains in China's Sichuan province with a group of friends. She has scaled lower peaks before, in Malaysia.


Rugged travel appeals to Ms Yeow, even when she remembers how she shivered at night with the sub-zero temperatures in Siguniang.


"The health benefits are the most important. I also make a lot of friends and get the chance to go on holiday and see the sights," she says.


She exercises for at least one hour, six days a week, alternating between swimming 40 laps and running 8km each time. Training intensifies ahead of races or climbs.


When she prepares to climb a mountain, her training includes walking up 32 floors of her Clementi HDB block several times, while carrying a backpack weighted with bottles of water.


She eats healthily and feels "uncomfortable" if she misses an exercise session. Meals often include fish, vegetables and soup and she makes her own yogurt and bread studded with black sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.


"I'm strong and haven't fallen seriously ill in 20 years. I tell my sons, 'You're lucky to be able to save money when it comes to my health.'"


Venessa Lee




Mr Paul Lawrence, 70, has trekked in the daunting Himalayan heights of Nepal twice and ascended other peaks across Asia.


On each adventure, all his fellow trekkers are younger, but he can keep up an athletic pace. They never have to wait for him.


"I'm pretty fast,'' he says. "I don't want special privileges.''


The wonder is that he started his sporting life only at around age 65, when he began thinking about retirement after decades of "working like crazy".


He owned a glass-roof business that demanded constant travel to Japan, Australia and Europe. He had established it with little capital at age 28, along with a friend. He sold the company in 2016 and now tends a smaller-scale business, also in the construction industry.


Looking for something to do in semi-retirement, the married man joined "Meetup" groups in Singapore to hike - at the suggestion of his daughter, a singleton who lives in New York. His son lives in Sydney and has two children.


While he found his first hiking group too slow, his next circle of speedy hikers left him exhausted. "My body was in pieces,'' he recounts.


But soon, he was loving the excursions in Singapore's water catchment area with this gung-ho band.


Next, he was trekking mountains in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan and China. Memorably, in Nepal, he accomplished an 11-day trek to Everest Base Camp and beyond in 2016.


His team took seven days instead of nine to reach an exhilarating height of 5,380m at the base camp. They trekked two more days through ice to Gokyo Lakes, the world's highest freshwater lake system. Then it was three days to Lukla where they ended a journey that has given him confidence to trek Asia's loftiest mountains.


Nearer home, he takes weekend highland treks where he would sleep on an overnight bus to Malaysia. In all, he takes up to 10 trips a year.


He keeps up a weekly regimen of training. On easy days, he walks three or four kilometres. On intensive days, it will be 12 to 15 km of fast walking, frequently on Mount Faber, which is near his Telok Blangah flat.


Before ascending peaks overseas, he will climb 47 storeys at a Housing Board block five or six times at a go.


He also cycles on Sundays. Because his daily life is so active, it is not unusual for him to clock 20,000 steps by mid-day.


Grit and dreams have been running motifs in his eventful life.


At age 14, he applied to live in Boys' Town, a charity with residential care and adventure therapy for vulnerable children and youth.


His father had left the family and his mother was a washerwoman supporting seven children. He found a sense of direction with the compassionate care at the home.


Because he stopped studying after Secondary 3, he had always felt driven to succeed at work. His roofing business did well, although it nearly went bankrupt twice.


These days, his finances are in the pink, and certainly his health too. He can afford to buy branded gear for his mountain treks.


"Financially, I am very okay. I am not rich, but I can spend as I like."


His knees are "not the best" especially when going downhill, but his long legs are ideal for the mountain terrain. He is 1.8m tall. While he has Type 2 diabetes, it is minor.


His doctor urged him to do a heart scan recently and the results came back perfect. He eats anything, he says.


Meanwhile, he keeps conquering new territory. He has been learning classical guitar for six months and also recently became enthused about aquaponics.


He loves designing and has created a sling system for stroke patients or disabled people to move around their house. He whips out his smartphone to show photos of this and other inventions.


"I still believe I can do anything. I never feel 70 or even 60,'' he says.


"When I face challenges, I tell myself, just take one more step, just concentrate on the next step."


Lee Siew Hua




A bicycle is a "moving sculpture" in the eyes of Mr Poon Kng Joo, 63, a cyclist and an artist.


Not only does he ride long-distance on holiday, he also creates vivid bicycle installation art for his private gallery and on commission.


Mr Poon's ardour for two-wheelers began with restoring heavy steel steeds, before he took the plunge into cycling around 10 years ago.


"I was a lousy rider,'' he recalls. "I was very slow, but I would always tell myself to finish my ride."


His first serious ride was with OCBC Cycle, a mass cycling event. He did a short excursion in the central business district a decade ago, and was amazed at the turnout of thousands.


"It was a rising trend. I thought cycling was worth doing."


A friend showed him how to cycle casually from Joo Chiat to Changi Village. Then he committed to cycling every week.


Before long, he was heading overseas with his bicycle and helmet. To date, he has done about 20 trips. He has cycled in Thailand and Taiwan, and mainly in Malaysia in the last eight years. Japan is on the horizon.


More immediately, he will pedal a gruelling 900km over five days in Thailand early next month. He will begin in Bangkok and navigate towards Nong Khai on the border with Laos alongside Thai friends from a cycling club.


Multi-day rides of this nature involve tough training, say, 200km in one day.


If he is not racing, he routinely cycles more than 100km during the weekend in Singapore. When he first started, he might clock 30km each time.


Cycling has been transformative.


"I was quite fat once,'' says Mr Poon, who has no health issues. He has gleaned rich lessons in endurance as well.


"It's very painful during the ride, but it's great after you finish 200km. It takes a lot of saddle time to be able to do that,'' he says.


"Always finish the race. It adds a lot to life.''


Bonding over the love of biking is "so amazing", says the enthusiast, who often mentions he is blessed. "Meeting friends and riding together is happiness."


This trumps the pleasure of travel, he feels, though he enjoys being immersed in nature and ascending hills on his cycling forays abroad.


Mr Poon was a restorer of high-end classic cars such as Ferraris and Porsches, taking over his father's business. Restoring bicycles and creating bicycle art have been an easy diversion for the man trained in metal fabrication and whose late brother was Cultural Medallion pioneer abstract artist Anthony Poon.


He owns about 100 bicycles, all of them restored except for five new ones. Each week, he poses with a bicycle and posts the photo on Facebook.


There is more. At age 60, he opened the Soek Seng 1954 Bicycle Cafe, named after his father's company. Located at Seletar Aerospace View, it serves comfort food with a view of planes taking off and landing.


He and his wife, who manages the cafe, do not have children. But his younger cycling companions are like his children, he says, while older ones who ride faster than him are his inspiration.


He had no fear in opening the cafe in his later years - or cycling farther. Anything is possible, he surmises. "I turned cars in bad shape into headturners."


He now hopes to open a second cafe. He believes he is in the prime of life. "The 60s are the beginning of the best time. You have knowledge and experience. You are comfortable financially,'' he says.


"I am fitter in my 60s than when I was younger."




• Go for a medical check-up if you have not gone for one recently.


• Get sufficiently fit, keeping in mind that each sport requires different training. A cycling trip of 100km over two or three days, for instance, benefits from at least a couple of months of training. Cycle three or more times a week as the main exercise, for preferably an hour or more.•


• Do body-conditioning exercises that heighten strength, speed, endurance and other facets of physical health. These will help one avoid injuries. Companies like Ace Adventure Expeditions, which has devised a Start Trekking programme, will organise training or engage coaches. For trekking trips, train first in Singapore with your backpack and trekking shoes.


• Start with an "easy" active holiday such as light trekking on flatter terrain. Or embed sporting activities within a larger and slightly less energetic travel itinerary. For example, a day's kayaking at a beach resort or horse-riding adventure as part of a longer Patagonia trip.


• Invest in the right gear, shoes and sportswear. Options at all price points are available in retail stores and online.


• As for any trip, adventurous or not, buy travel insurance.


• Prepare medication and avoid checking it in. Have a written record of the medicine and the dosage.


• In far-flung places, remember that you are not in sanitised Singapore, so be ready to rough it out. The pure vistas and the sense of discovery are worth it.


• Weather is changeable on adventure holidays, so plans can flip in an instant. It may take a moment to snap out of the city mindset.


• Many Singaporeans are often not used to the cold. Learn to layer smartly.


• Stay hydrated, even on lightly active holidays.


• Some suggestions for starting out: Even Nepal is suitable for first-timers, who can do a five-day village-to-village trek on Poon Hill. Beginners can also trek a couple of days on Mount Hehuan in Taiwan, descending each day to dine and sleep well in the village. These two peaks are over 3,000m. Meanwhile, mountainous Japan has walks of easy, moderate and advanced intensity for trekkers who want a holiday fusing the outdoor life, seasonal cuisine and culture.




Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


The views, material and information presented by any third party are strictly the views of such third party. Without prejudice to any third party content or materials whatsoever are provided for information purposes and convenience only. Council For The Third Age shall not be responsible or liable for any loss or damage whatsoever arising directly or indirectly howsoever in connection with or as a result of any person accessing or acting on any information contained in such content or materials. The presentation of such information by third parties on this Council For The Third Age website does not imply and shall not be construed as any representation, warranty, endorsement or verification by Council For The Third Age in respect of such content or materials.