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. Read the rest of this entry »