By Daniel G. Graetzer, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Health Sciences
Aging and exercise are more related than you may think. Although life may not begin at 40, it certainly does not have to end there. Just ask 41-year-old Jack Foster who stunned the world by running a marathon in two hours and 11 minutes at an average pace of five minutes per mile for 26.2 miles.
There’s also Gordie Howe, who played professional ice hockey for 33 seasons and who was named a National Hockey League Allstar in 1980 for the 22nd time – as a 52-year-old grandfather. If you are still not convinced, Richard Bass conquered Mount Everest at age 55 and Ashley Harper swam the English Channel at age 65.
Aging has been defined as a decrease in the ability to adapt to physical or mental stress. A few short decades ago, heart patients were often not specifically told by their healthcare providers that exercise was in fact healthy. This opinion was mainly due to the knowledge that strenuous exertion produces muscle soreness that requires a recovery period and that there was no early research existed that showed any benefits of aging and exercise.
There is less risk in activity than in continuous inactivity. It is more advisable to pass a physical examination if one intends to be sedentary in order to establish whether one’s state of health is good enough to stand the inactivity. – Sports medicine specialist Dr. Per-Olof Astrand, 1986
Today, many health care specialists are advocating that it is more dangerous not to exercise than it is to exercise. Organizations such as the American Heart Association and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness have now published information online due to public demand for quality information regarding exercise.
This public interest in exercise has led to master’s-level competitions with several divisions in numerous sports (track, swimming and tennis), which are receiving prime-time media coverage. More mature participants such as Jack Foster repeatedly show that they are still capable of incredible performances despite the passage of time when it comes to aging and exercise.
In fact, the first Senior Olympic Games were held in 1970 with only 200 competitors. Now, tens of thousands of athletes from a wide variety of nations compete in these games, now known as the National Senior Games.
Peak Periods of Athletic Performance Vary
Research into the effects of aging on exercise performance has shown a decrease in athletic performance as one gets older. As a general rule (with notable exceptions), the physiological status of the human body reaches its maximum at some point between the late teens and 30 years of age.
The type of sport does appear to make a difference, however. Women gymnasts normally peak in their early teens, while male marathon runners run their fastest times at about age 34.
There are still several unanswered questions as to why this decline in athletic performance occurs, but preliminary research has indicated that not all aspects of fitness (such as flexibility and reaction time) decline at precisely the same rate. It is also unclear whether deteriorations in performance are a direct result of the aging process, the progressive adoption of a more sedentary lifestyle or a combination of both factors.
Your Maximal Heart Rate Decreases as You Age
One well-documented physiological decline that occurs during aging is a reduction in one’s maximal heart rate. This maximal heart rate is calculated by the familiar formula of 220 minus the person’s age.
For instance, a 20-year-old would have an estimated max heart rate of 200 beats per minute (220 – 20 = 200). By contrast, a 500-year-old would max out at a heart rate of 170 beats per minute (220 – 50 = 170).
This progressive decline in the heart rate begins after about age 25 and appears to occur at nearly the same rate in both men and women. It also occurs regardless of whether someone is sedentary or active and is not connected to aging and exercise.
As a consequence of a decrease in your maximal heart rate, your cardiac output (the total amount of blood pumped out of the heart per minute) is reduced and the stroke volume (the amount of blood ejected from the heart per heartbeat) also sinks. The oxygen supply to working muscles goes down, your metabolism decreases and you experience an earlier onset of fatigue.
Muscular strength also starts to decline between the ages of 20 and 30, probably due to losses in muscle protein. This decline is loosely correlated to a progressive loss in muscle mass and the corresponding rise in the percentage of body fat that is often seen with aging.
Body Composition Checks Are a Better Method of Body Examination
Experts recommend that people come in for regular body composition checks involving underwater weighing or skinfold calipers. Body composition checks are far better than simply monitoring weight with a standard scale, because your body weight can remain stable while the amount of fat in your body drifts up considerably.
For example, you may weigh 160 pounds at age 20 and still weigh 160 pounds at age 55, but your percentage of body fat may increase from 12% to 25% or higher during those 35 years. That increase may be due to aging, inactivity or both.
Regular Exercise Can’t Stop Aging, But Can Improve Your Quality of Life
It is difficult to scientifically prove that regular exercise can increase longevity. However, physical activity may retard the age-related decline in the ability to withstand stress. So aging and exercise can complement each other.
Overall, most medical experts commonly agree that:
- Exercise is a strong contributor to leading a healthier lifestyle.
- Any adverse effects associated with exercise are extremely small in comparison with the potential physical and mental benefits.
In today’s high-tech society, many Americans lead a sedentary lifestyle. In fact, over 50% of all U.S. adults lead an entirely sedentary lifestyle. Although leading an active lifestyle may not be a magic antidote to the inevitable aging process, isn’t the quality of one’s life far more important than the quantity of life anyway? Aging and exercise are the key.