It’s exercise, says Olympic runner, researcher Dr. Peter Snell


Movies have been made and books have been written about the first runner, in 1954, to break the 4-minute mile. Peter Snell wasn’t the first, but in the 1960s, the New Zealander ran a sub 4-minute mile at least 15 times; the best set a world record at 3 minutes 54 seconds. During that era, he also won five Olympic gold medals and broke multiple other middle-distance running world records.

Today he is Dr. Snell, 76, a renowned expert in exercise, physiology and aging, and the director of the Human Performance Center at the UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. He has authored or co-authored 60 published papers on exercise-related research, and written a book called “Use it or Lose it: Be Fit. Live Well,” in which he shares well-researched secrets to successful aging.

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Today Peter Snell rides his bike to work daily, often accompanied by his wife, Miki Snell. Photo by Benjamin Hager

Today Peter Snell rides his bike to work daily, often accompanied by his wife, Miki Snell. Photos by Benjamin Hager

He is still learning amazing things about the capabilities of the human body.

Peter Snell and his wife, Miki, live on a shady road north of White Rock Lake. The Olympian is tall with thick gray hair. He speaks softly with New Zealand brogue. He thanks us for giving Miki time to get cleaned up.

“She’s been working on the deck all morning,” he explains.

Miki Snell, a petite, pastel-clad blonde who practically glows with energy, offers a tour of the house. Sun spills into an open atrium and shines on a shelf of trophies, medals, plaques, framed newspaper clippings and photos.

The room opens to the deck that stretches out across a densely wooded backyard and a running creek. From the outside the home looked modest, like other houses on the street, but upon closer inspection, it’s rather incredible. The house is kind of like its owners.

The Snells like working in the yard, gardening, riding bicycles and golfing. They are world-class competitors in the sport of orienteering, which requires both physical and navigation skills (and fitting into sleek orienteering outfits that make them look like a superhero duo).

They understand that physicality and mental sharpness is fleeting, but they seem to have discovered the secret to getting the most out of their bodies and minds. “Consistency,” Peter Snell says. “You don’t have to kill yourself, but you must stay active. Put it on the calendar.

Peter Snell won five Olympic Gold medals in the 1960s

Peter Snell won five Olympic Gold medals in the 1960s

“You can’t age well without exercise,” he says.

Snell quit running competitively at age 29, but after a stint in sales, advertising and endorsing products, he still felt drawn to athletics. He didn’t want to participate professionally in sports anymore, but he longed to learn more about human physiology and the ways athletic sport and

health interrelate.

At 34, he moved to the United States and enrolled at University of California Davis as a freshman. He notes that in the United States, it was reasonable for a man to start an education and a new career later in life, whereas had he stayed in New Zealand, he probably would have been expected to settle down, maybe do a little coaching. He could have enjoyed a nice retirement in New Zealand simply resting on his laurels. It was, after all, the country that made both a stamp and a bronze statue in his honor and named him “Athlete of the 20th Century.”

But this was a man who thrived on intensity. At 34, the guy made famous for his strong finish had barely started his race.

He paid for medical school mostly from game show winnings.

“I didn’t have much money, but I was invited to be on ABC Superstars, a show that was popular in the 1970s — you competed against other professional athletes but never in your own sport. I crashed on my way to winning first place in the bicycle race, but I still won enough to stay in school.”

In his Olympic-training days, Snell had unquestioningly followed the instruction of his coach, the famous Arthur Lydiard, and as a result, became his country’s greatest runner. While in medical school, he says, he actually began to understand his coach’s methods — tons of endurance training built up certain muscle fibers and stamina that allowed him to finish stronger than any other runner

of the era. And he acquired an understanding of exercise’s role in maintaining stamina, strength and good health for the long haul, wisdom that would shape his future.

He learned that exercise is an effective intervention for metabolic, hormonal and heart problems and that it helped kids recovering from leukemia as well as HIV-positive patients, and, most importantly, Peter Snell says, it improves the overall quality of life.

Through regular exercise, we preserve muscle mass, explains Dr. Snell. “It is that loss of muscle mass that makes us frail as we age.” And regular exercise doesn’t just protect the body, he says, but also boosts brainpower.

“We have long felt that exercise is neuroprotective, improving memory and mood. Today imaging is allowing those theories to be proved,” Snell says. “There are even studies showing that women who exercise have less incidence of breast cancer, that exercise protects tumor-suppressing genes.

“Exercise does a whole lot of stuff drugs do, without the side effects.”

Miki and Peter Snell’s mutual athletic interests brought them together. Miki was also a runner, one of the first women to run in and win Dallas’ Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot. She learned that Coach Arthur Lydiard and Peter Snell would be leading a workshop. “I knew who [Peter] was. All of us runners did. I was very excited to meet him.” At the time, she was in her 30s, he in his 40s, and they hit it off right away.

Peter needed a dinner date, Miki accepted and, two years later, they married.

Eventually, they grew bored with running — it’s predictable and tough to improve after reaching a certain age, they say — but they have remained passionate throughout the years about exercise, which Peter Snell calls “the fountain of youth.”

Each day Peter Snell rides his bike to work from his home near Northwest Highway and Abrams to work at UT Southwestern in downtown Dallas. Miki often accompanies him halfway before returning home on her bike. They are part of a golf league at Top Golf in Lake Highlands, and they are competitive, even (perhaps especially) against one another, in the lesser-known sport of orienteering. It combines cross-country racing and topography tests in which a map and compass are used to find specific points on a landscape. Contestants compete to be first to pass through each point.

Miki and Peter Snell are world-class competitiors in the growing sport of orienteering. Photo by Benjamin Hager

Miki and Peter Snell are world-class competitiors in the growing sport of orienteering. Photo by Benjamin Hager

Peter, also a champion in his orienteering age division, likes the sport because it is one of the few at which one can improve as he or she gets older. Miki’s goal usually is to beat her husband, she says with a grin. But she is totally serious.

“I beat him a lot,” she says. “People say, ‘How can you beat him?’ But it’s about reading the map as much as it is physical ability.”

Miki Snell, a former professional dancer and Braniff flight attendant, has won several national orienteering titles in the last 20 years. Staying fit, in the long run, is about finding something that is fun, she says. For her, fun is trouncing others — younger orienteerers, fellow Top Golf leaguers and her husband, who is sitting quietly, smiling at his wife (they are obviously kindred spirits). “Competition is fun,” she says, “makes you feel like a kid.”

Peter Snell gets up and heads toward the kitchen, returning with a little gadget. “That reminds me,” he says. “I forgot to put on my pedometer today.”

They like to see who walks the most steps on a given day.

A competitive spirit can drive daily exercise, Peter says. If you don’t have a driven spouse like Miki to challenge you, compete with yourself, he says. “Keep a log. Challenge yourself to reach a goal.” As incentive for non-competitive types, he suggests planning a skiing or hiking trip and then train for that. “I am often asked what is the best exercise, and the answer is: the exercise that you enjoy and will do.”