Want to secret to staying strong as you age? The research is in and the “secret” is out: superb fitness. A new study has found that elderly people who were elite athletes in their youth, or even later in life, and who have continued to compete as master athletes have healthier muscles, at the cellular level, than non-athletes.
Geoff Power, a professor in the Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Guelph, has found that elderly people, who competed as athletes in their younger years, whether it was in the youth or a bit later in life, tend to have healthier muscles the older they get. At the cellular level, their muscles are stronger than those elderly people who did compete as athletes at any point in their lives.
Power’s research, which was recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared world-class track and field athletes in their 80’s with people of the same age who were not athletes. Very few studies of master athletes in this age group have been conducted and the research that Power’s completed is helping illuminate the benefits of athletic competition throughout the aging process. Participants in the study include world-class track and field athletes in their 80’s and 90’s who compete at the masters level. Seven of the participants are world champions. According to Power, these are the crème de la crème of aging.
In the aging process, the nervous system loses motor neurons which results in a loss of motor units, reduced muscle mass, less strength, speed and power. This process of loses motor neurons increases and speeds up past 60 years of age. Masters athletes in the U of G study were found to have nearly one third more motor units in their leg muscles than non-athletes. In addition, athletes had about 14 percent more muscle mass in their legs and their legs were up to 25 percent stronger than non-athletes. By continuing to compete at the master levels, these athletes are essentially slowing down the aging process and retaining muscle mass and strength despite the increased rate of deterioration common in their age group.
Power, who led the study as a visiting PhD student from Western University and the Canadian Center for Activity and Aging at McGill University also ran a study looking at muscle fiber samples from the same group of elite and non-elite athletes in their 80’s and 90’s. Results from that study were published in the American Journal of Physiology. While Power’s studies show that exercise, at all stages of life can help reduce muscle loss, he believes that more research must be done to determine how much genetics influences the rate of muscle loss in athletes and non-athletes. Regardless of the role that genetics plays in muscle loss, exercise, from elite training to daily workouts can greatly improve muscle mass, reduce the loss of muscle mass, and help keep you, and your muscles, young, longer.