Fitness and Aging – Use It Or Lose It

Alex Hutchinson, who writes the "Jockology" column for the Globe and Mail, published an interesting piece several months ago that addressed the perennial question of whether we exercise less as we get older because our bodies start to break down, or if our bodies break down because we become less active as we age.  For years, it was widely accepted that humans get weaker starting in their 30s.  However, new research on topics ranging from the cellular mechanisms of aging to the time-defying performances of masters athletes are forcing investigators to question this assumption.  It appear that the first signs of decline are more a function of lifestyle than DNA – if you keep using it, you will be well into middle age before you start losing it.

One of the classic approaches to studying age-related decline is to look at how age-group records change in sports such as running or weightlifting.  The fastest and strongest 45 year olds are considerably slower and weaker than their 25 year old counterparts.  However, there are several problems with this line of reasoning, the most important being that even the best older athletes train less as they age.  The reasons for this are unclear – is it because these athletes give up on hard workouts because they are not going to make the Olympics, or is it because those hard workouts hurt more than they used to?  Or is it because of family responsibilities?  Another problem with looking at age-group records is that extreme levels of performance require a punishing training regimen that can rarely be sustained longer than 10 years.  Most athletes setting records in their 20s are not training at a high level in their 40s for this reason. To counteract these research problems, scientists at the German Sport University Cologne looked at the times of mid-pack (average) runners, since their time is more likely to be consistent over several decades.  To do this, the researchers evaluated finishing time data for more than 900,000 marathon and half-marathon finishers in German races, ranging in age from 20 to 79.

The results were startling: No significant age-related decline in performance appeared before the age of 55.  And even beyond that age, the decline was surprisingly gentle – in the 65 to 69 group, a full 25 percent of the runners had times that would have ranked as above average among 20 to 54 year olds.  The most important thing to note is that all the runners in the study trained a similar amount – three to four times per week for about an hour – no matter what their age. The conclusion, according to the researchers, is clear: “Performance losses in middle age are mainly due to a sedentary lifestyle rather than biological aging.”

Exercise Specialist Recommendations:
  • Run, walk or cycle three to four times per week for an hour!
  • Fit walking into your daily routine so that less dedicated time will need to be set aside for exercising.
  • Schedule exercise sessions into your week as appointments that cannot be broken.
  • Use discontinuous exercise – break up your workout into smaller segments over the course of the day.  Recent studies have found that discontinuous - or fragmented - exercise has a more favourable effect on hypertension than single-session training.
  • Set up a personal reward system for your achievements, particularly for frequency of exercise sessions – this is especially important for the three to six months it takes to establish a lifelong habit.

Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. -Jim Ryan