Midlife Athletes on Aging

Written by T. G. Rand

The fountain of youth is found by many a middle aged athlete.

If you find yourself overwhelmed by studies telling you how, how much or how little to exercise , then you need Bob Wiswell, the man who heads the exercise physiology department at the University of Southern California.

Wiswell has made a career of studying older athletes. Not professional athletes, but amateurs like himself, a fitness buff and sports enthusiast who plays basketball and softball regularly. For the past 14 years, he's been conducting a study in which he and his staff look at the ways in which vigorously active men and women, who are over 40, age.

Bulk Up Your Muscles
Vigorous exercise at midlife is proving to be a powerful age buster.
It's not too late to start even if you're over 40.
Midlife athletes have the aerobic capacity, cholesterol level and muscle tone of college-age adults.

And what he's found is that many of them don'tage, at least not the way you'd expect. The men have average body fat percentages of 15 percent; the women have about 21 percent body fat.

Those are numbers you'd expect to see in college-age people. Cholesterol levels are low, blood pressure is low; aerobic capacity is high.

Wiswell's athletes are people like physicians, dentists, lawyers, who are dedicated to sports such as swimming, running, cycling and, in one case, even swing dancing.

Among the 250 people he's examined in minute detail (treadmill tests, bone density scans and muscle biopsies are among the tools he uses), are a 90-year-old swimmer and a 66-year-old ultra-distance runner.

 The first question you'd want to ask Wiswell is: What makes these people so special? Do they have some genetic protection against aging?

"That's not a question I can answer with certainty," he says, "but my personal opinion is, no. The genetic factor is probably not the decisive one in these people." For one thing, he notes, the majority of the men and women in his study were, if anything, exceptionally unathletic for the early part of their lives.

"The average age of my study participants is 51 years old, and the average years they've been training is about 10." That means, on average, the majority was not particularly active for the first 40 years of their lives. It also means that the remarkable benefits they've accrued have come from lifestyle changes they implemented in recent years.

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How do midlife athletes achieve their remarkable health? Wiswell believes that it's vigorous exercise thatMidlife exercise routinesconfers the special benefits that improve longevity and boost quality of life.

"Many of the recommendations we see are aimed at light or moderate forms of exercise," he says, noting that a 1970s study determined that one of the major motivations to exercise for older people is fear of incapacitation.

Fitness Advice
Vigorous exercise is defined as burning 410 calories per hour or 3,000 to 3,500 calories per week for a person who weighs 150 pounds.
Vigorous exercise has a "training effect" that leads to improvements in muscle mass and strength.

"Most people want to maintain their cardiovascular health and you can do that at a fairly low level of intensity. You won't necessarily be improving your VO2 Max," he says, referring to the level of oxygen absorption that is considered to be the fitness gold standard. "But you'll be substantially reducing your risks for cardiovascular disease."

But for improvements of the sort he sees in the men and women he has studied, Wiswell believes that competition is what makes the difference.

"If you're a recreational runner, or sprinter, or ball player, and you compete even once or twice a year, your level of training is probably going to be more vigorous," he says.

Several studies, Wiswell says, reveal the benefits of such a training regimen: Gains in muscle strength and size, better bone mass, and a lower decline in aerobic capacity (the body's ability to use oxygen for energy). In fact, the decline is half of what it is among healthy people who do not exercise vigorously.

Vigorous exercise according to a report in the Journal of the American Medical Associationmeans burning a total of 3,000 to 3,500 calories per week, at a rate of at least 410 calories per hour.

But more specifically, vigorous refers to a "training effect": It is that level of exercise stress that leads to improvements in muscle mass and strength and better cardiovascular function.

What's key, of course, is not to injure yourself in the process of pursuing vigorous exercise. "With the rewards," Wiswell notes, "come risks." At the very least, any man or woman above the age of 40 should consult a physician before undertaking strenuous activity.


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