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Story highlights

At 81, Jeanne Daprano runs and rows competitively

"When I get to the final finish line, here on Earth, I want this body to be worn out," she said

(CNN) —  

Jeanne Daprano wants the world to know something: She’s not leaving anything behind. No regrets, no fear. At 81 years old, she’s still pushing her body to the limit. She’s still running competitive races, breaking world records and taking on new challenges.

Why?

More like – why not?

“The thing I’m learning about aging is, it’s inevitable,” Daprano said. “I’m not going to escape it. There are two ways to go: You can either press on or give up. Do I want to go back to 50, 40? No. Because I think the best is yet to come.”

Daprano grew up in Iowa. Eventually, she moved to California. As an elementary school teacher, she began running in order to keep up with her students.

“I was known as the running teacher,” she said. “I had my students do fitness before we studied in the morning and then fitness throughout the day.”It might have started there, but Daprano’s life as a runner took off in ways she never could have predicted. She began running competitively with 5K and 10K road races before moving to the track. She is now the world record holder in the women’s 70-year-old age group mile and the women’s 75-year-old age group 400 meters and 800 meters.

“I’m here in this age group, 80 to 84 I compete in, [and] worldwide, there’s few women athletes,” Daprano said. “The feeling of being fit at any age is a real gift, a blessing.”

01:37 - Source: CNN
Jeanne Daprano is redefining your idea of aging

Staying fit at any age has been proved to benefit longevity. A recent study showed that healthy habits like exercise, which help prevent heart disease, can add as much as a decade to your life – if not more.

Lyle Ungar, a researcher in the Department of Computer and Information Science at the University of Pennsylvania, studies the data behind lifespan. Exercise is one of the factors that impacts longevity the most, and it happens to be one of the factors we have the most control over.

“The first 20 minutes [of exercise] a day probably buys you two years [extra] life expectancy,” Ungar said. “Clearly a win. The second 20 minutes per day probably buys you about one more year.”

When it comes to longevity, it’s not just about the number of years but the quality of the years that counts. Exercise helps with that, too.

“What I really like about exercise is, not only do you live longer,” Ungar said, “but you die faster in the sense that once you finally start to fall apart, you fall apart quickly. Exercise is good that way.”

Daprano agrees. “When I get to the final finish line, here on Earth, I want this body to be worn out, there’s not a thing left in it. I’m not doing this to live to be 100. I’m doing this to be the best I can be, today. Period.”

After moving to Atlanta about a decade ago, Daprano met fitness trainer David Buer. Ever since, she’s been coming to his gym, where he tailors workouts for Daprano’s specific needs.

“When she came to me, Jeanne was pushing 70 years old,” Buer said. “I’ve worked with other individuals Jeanne’s age, but she came to me with different goals. She had a unique drive and passion – not just a passion for fitness or athletics but for life in general. It’s inspiring. It’s invigorating. And it’s contagious.”

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And she’s not done. In February, Daprano took on a new challenge: her first indoor rowing competition. In classic fashion, she broke the world record in the 80-to-84 age group, rowing 2,000 meters in 9:23.7.

For those hoping to either start getting in shape or stay in shape for a long time, she offers this advice:

“Listen to your body. What are you passionate about? How are you going to keep physically fit and mentally fit? Start where you are. Don’t look ahead or compare yourself to somebody else. I’m still doing it, and I probably have a greater passion now than ever, because I’m understanding who I am.”

CNN’s Daryl Brown contributed to this report.