At 1.62m tall and weighing 52kg, Chen Xuhua, from Jinan, Shandong province, looks much younger than her 77 years.

She thinks the secret to her youthful appearance is running – something she would have never taken up if not for her husband.

“I’ve been running for 31 years and it has not only cured my pains but enriched my life and helped me realise my dreams,” she said.

Before retiring, Chen worked as a teacher at a kindergarten owned by the Jinan Boiler Group, where she taught singing and dancing.

In 1985, her husband Li Zhipo was diagnosed with a disorder that affected his ability to move and meant he had to give up his hobby of playing basketball.

“When he was deprived of basketball, he looked depressed,” Chen said.

“I thought the situation would be worse if he stayed at home all day long. I had to take him out.”

So the couple began taking walks, getting up at 5am every day to do about two hours of exercise.

Over time, Li was able to walk further and further and eventually overcame his problem. Even now, age 82, he is still in good health.

“Thanks to him, I fell in love with running, which keeps me in good health. He recovered, but I can’t stop running,” said Chen, adding that she seldom catches colds and her backache disappears whenever she exercises.

“If for one day I don’t run, I would feel uncomfortable,” she said.

In 1988, Chen began participating in small-scale sports meets organised by her company. Within 10 years, she was invited to attend the Asian Masters Athletics Championships held in Okinawa, Japan.

It was the first time she had taken part in an international-level competition, but still she won both the 1,500m and 5,000m races.

“When I first began taking part in races I had a dream of running at international ­level and winning a prize. My dream has been realised,” she said.

After the competition in Japan, Chen started training harder, running in the morning and strength training at home in the afternoon. She joined the Jinan Quancheng Running Team, which caters to amateurs, in 2002.

To date, she has participated in hundreds of competitions held both at home and abroad and has won 119 gold medals.

At the Perth 2016 World Masters Athletics Championships held from Oct 26 to Nov 6 in Australia, Chen won the 5,000m and 2,000m steeplechase for women in the 75-79 age group.

“To compete in tournaments held in foreign countries, I have to overcome many difficulties, like the food and the weather,” Chen said.

Years of running have also left her with a painful right leg, which limits her exercise to two hours per day.

“Although it hurts to run, I don’t want to give up. Running has become part of my life,” she said.

Han Zhaozhong, the 74-year-old head of Jinan Quancheng Running Team, said Chen sets a “positive example”.

“She shows us how to live in a healthy way, both mentally and physically, after we have retired,” he said. “She has earned great fame for our running team.”

When the team was established in 2002, it had about 40 members, but now boasts more than 160. This increase in size has also attracted corporate sponsorship and the team now receives 150,000 yuan (RM95,500) annually from the Jinan sports lottery administration centre.

Chen’s love of running has also influenced her neighbours and children.

“In the 1990s, when my neighbours saw me dressed in sports gear running every day, they laughed at me. But now they come running with me,” she said.

“My three sons also like sports, partly because of our influence. I will continue running. And try to realise another dream – applying to Guinness World Records for the most gold medals won by an amateur runner.” – China Daily/Asia News Network/Zhao Ruixue