Posted on Nov 24, 2018, 3 a.m.
Muscles of older women and men who have exercised on a regular basis for decades were found to be indistinguishable in many ways from those of healthy much younger people in a study group of active septuagenarians published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
The active older participants also had much higher aerobic capacities than most people of their own age group, study findings showed them to be biologically about 30 years younger than their chronological ages, according to the researchers.
Every second of every day the body ages, which makes many deeply interested in what can be expected as the body ages in the subsequent years and decades to follow. Statistics and observations suggest that elderly people experience illness, frailty, and dependence, but it has not been established by science whether and to what extent such physical decline is inevitable with age or if it is partially a byproduct of modern lifestyle and perhaps amenable to change.
Many studies have suggested that physical activity may alter how we age. Older athletes have recently been found to have healthier brains, immune systems, hearts, and muscles than sedentary people of the same age; but many of these studies have concentrated on competitive athletes not those who exercise recreationally and few have included women.
Ball State University looked at a distinctive set of older men and women who started exercising during the booms of people taking up exercise as a hobby in the 1970s who either maintained the hobby for the next 50 years, or never competed since then. 28 participants were recruited including 7 physically active women. Age matched older people who had not exercised during childhood, and a group of people in their 20s were also recruited.
All subjects were tested in the lab for aerobic capacities, and number of capillaries and levels of certain enzymes in the muscle were measured using tissue samples; high numbers for each indicate muscular health.
Cardiovascular system and muscles were focused on as they are believed to decline with age. A hierarchical pattern in differences between the groups were expected to be seen. Younger subjects were expected possess the most robust muscles and aerobic capacities, with lifelong exercises being slightly weaker on both counts, and older non-exercisers fairing worse. However these outcomes were not what they found.
Muscles of older exercisers were found to resemble those of the younger subjects with many capillaries and enzymes similar and far more than in muscles of sedentary elderly subjects. Active elderly subjects had lower aerobic capacities than the younger subjects, but their capacities were 40% higher than their sedentary peers.
When the active older subject aerobic capacities were compared to those of established “normal” capacities at different age the researchers calculated the older active group had the cardiovascular health of those aged 30 years younger than themselves.
Findings taken together on cardiovascular and muscular health in active older people suggest that what is considered to be normal age related physical deterioration may not be normal or inevitable; and that exercise can help to build up a reserve of good health at younger ages which may enable us to slow or evade physical frailty at older ages.
As this study was cross sectional only highlighting a single moment in subject’s lives it cannot say whether exercise habits directly caused differences in health of if genes, diet or other lifestyle factors contributed. Additionally muscle mass and other important measures of health were not looked at, or whether you can begin exercising late in life and have the same benefits; however the team plans to investigate some of these issues in future studies.
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