Recently read a NY Times article about Olga Kotelko, 91,who is shattering track-and-field records—in her age group—and testing theories about aging. Check out this adorable video of her in which she says, “I don’t want to start another new career. I want to hang on to this one.” She is being studied like an alien to find out why she is still so youthful and able to amass hundreds of athletic gold medals for her age. What makes her different? Special muscles? Unique motivation? A very interesting six-page story. I have extracted some of the highlights that anyone of any age can relate to. It really points to the benefits of exercise for good health and youthful life. And it emphasizes what many people have realized is my own obsession—not just to live longer, but to live healthfully and actively…
…scientists like Taivassalo and Hepple have a different goal, and exercise — elixir not so much of extended life as extended youthfulness — may be the key to reaching it. James Fries, an emeritus professor at Stanford School of Medicine, coined the working buzz phrase: “compression of morbidity.” You simply erase chronic illness and infirmity from the first, say, 95 percent of your life. “So you’re healthy, healthy, healthy, and then at some point you kick the bucket,” Tarnopolsky says. “It’s like the Neil Young song: better to burn out than to rust.” You get a normal life span, but in Olga years. Who wouldn’t take it?
…You don’t have to be an athlete to notice how ruthlessly age hunts and how programmed the toll seems to be. We start losing wind in our 40s and muscle tone in our 50s. Things go downhill slowly until around age 75, when something alarming tends to happen.
“There’s a slide I show in my physical-activity-and-aging class,” Taivassalo says. “You see a shirtless fellow holding barbells, but I cover his face. I ask the students how old they think he is. I mean, he could be 25. He’s just ripped. Turns out he’s 67. And then in the next slide there’s the same man at 78, in the same pose. It’s very clear he’s lost almost half of his muscle mass, even though he’s continued to work out. So there’s something going on.” But no one knows exactly what. Muscle fibers ought in theory to keep responding to training. But they don’t. Something is applying the brakes.
…when you hear the stories of older senior athletes, a common thread does emerge. While most younger masters athletes were jocks in college if not before, many competitors in the higher brackets—say, older than age 70—have come to the game late. They weren’t athletes earlier in life because of the demands of career and their own growing families. Only after their duties cleared could they tend that other fire.
…Exercise has been shown to add between six and seven years to a life span (and improve the quality of life in countless ways). Any doctor who didn’t recommend exercise would be immediately suspect. But for most seniors, that prescription is likely to be something like a daily walk or Aquafit. It’s not quarter-mile timed intervals or lung-busting fartleks (a training technique, used esp. among runners, consisting of bursts of intense effort loosely alternating with less strenuous activity). There’s more than a little suffering in the difference.
…Yet if there’s a single trend in the research into exercise and gerontology, it’s that we have underestimated what old folks are capable of, from how high their heart rates can safely climb to how deeply into old age they can exercise with no major health risks.
…Motivation may ultimately be the issue. Finding reasons to keep exercising is a universal challenge. Even rats seem to bristle, eventually, at voluntary exercise, studies suggest. Young rats seem intrinsically driven to run on the wheels you put in their cages. But one day those wheels just stop turning. The aging athlete must manufacture strategies to keep pushing in the face of plenty of perfectly rational reasons not to: things hurt, you’ve achieved a lot of your goals and the friends you used to do it for and with are disappearing.
…Here, though, is the radical proposition that’s starting to gain currency among researchers studying masters athletes: what if intense training does something that allows the body to regenerate itself? Two recent studies involving middle-aged runners suggest that the serious mileage they were putting in, over years and years, had protected them at the chromosomal level. It appears that exercise may stimulate the production of telomerase, an enzyme that maintains and repairs the little caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep genetic information intact when cells divide. That may explain why older athletes aren’t just more cardiovascularly fit than their sedentary counterparts — they are more free of age-related illness in general.
Exactly how exercise affects older people is complicated. On one level, exercise is a flat-out insult to the body. Downhill running tears quadriceps muscles as reliably as an injection of snake venom. All kinds of free radicals and other toxins are let loose. But the damage also triggers the production of antioxidants that boost the health of the body generally. So when you see a track athlete who looks as if that last 1,500-meter race damn near killed him, you’re right. It might have made him stronger in the deal.
Exercise training helps stop muscle strength and endurance from slipping away. But it seems to also do something else, maintains Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario (who also happens to be a top-ranked trail runner). Resistance exercise in particular seems to activate a muscle stem cell called a satellite cell. With the infusion of these squeaky-clean cells into the system, the mitochondria seem to rejuvenate. (The phenomenon has been called “gene shifting.”) If Tarnopolsky is right, exercise in older adults can roll back the odometer. After six months of twice weekly strength exercise training, he has shown, the biochemical, physiological and genetic signature of older muscle is “turned back” nearly 15 or 20 years.
Whether we are doing really old folks any favors by prescribing commando-grade training, well, “that’s the million-dollar question,” Hepple says. “Olga can obviously handle it. But most people aren’t Olga.” In general, kidneys and other organs tend to have trouble managing the enzymes and byproducts produced when muscle breaks down. Inflammation, which produces that good kind of soreness weekend warriors are familiar with, “also damages a lot of healthy tissue around it,” notes Li Li Ji, an exercise physiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “That’s why I usually discourage older people from being too ambitious.”
Kotelko herself speaks often of the perils of getting carried away. “If you undertrain, you might not finish,” she says. “If you overtrain, you might not start.” But there’s some evidence that, in trying to find the sweet spot between staying in race shape and avoiding the medical tent, a lot of seniors athletes aren’t training hard enough—or at least, aren’t training the right way to maximally exploit what their body can still do.
…Trappe concluded the regime (for astronauts) wasn’t nearly hard-core enough. His prescription for NASA: heavier loads and explosive movements. “It’s pretty clear that intensity wins up there,” he says. “And I would predict this to be the case as we age. Part of the challenge is the mind-set or dogma that we need to slow down as we get older.” For example, the belief that aging joints and tendons can’t take real weight-training is dead wrong; real weight-training is what might just save them. Seniors can work out less frequently, Trappe reckons, as long as they really bring it when they do.
…But competition can spur people on. “Maintaining your own records in the face of your supposed decline, providing evidence that you’re delaying the effects of aging—these are strong motives,” says Bradley Young, a kinesiology and sports psychology professor at the University of Ottawa. Young studies the factors that make track athletes want to continue competing into old age. A big one is training partners and family—both the encouragement they offer, and the guilt you’d feel letting them down if you quit. But the strongest motivating driver, Young found, was one’s spouse.