Swimmer Dara Torres, 41, says her strokes have gotten better with age. John Dane III is a 58-year-old sailor who competed in his first Olympics in Beijing. Constantina Tomescu-Dita of Romania is a 38-year-old mom who grabbed gold in the women’s marathon, tearing up the 26.2-mile course like it was nothing. Equestrian rider Hiroshi Hoketsu of Japan, 67, insists he’s never been in better shape.
Eve Pell, resident of Mill Valley, California, didn’t start running until she was 40, and she went on to become the fastest woman road runner at the age of 60. A year ago, at 70, she competed in several races at the World Masters Game in Italy. “At the Games in Italy, you’d see all of these wiry, grey-haired people in their warm-ups running and jumping,” Pell recalls. “Running does retard the ageing process—and that’s no small thing.” It can also bring some fringe benefits. Pell met her future husband, Sam Hirabayashi, who is 80, while running.
Karen Francis, a behavioural neuroscientist at the University of San Francisco and co-author of Physical Dimensions of Aging, has been watching the Olympics with special interest. “Our knowledge regarding what happens to the body with age is really changing,” Francis says. “It used to be that the gold standard for physical performance was 20. But now you have people who are continuing to train and are pushing the age curve up.”
In the process, these athletes are becoming better. “I liken it to a pianist who has done very deliberate practice for 50 years. That individual will know exactly what is needed to perform the piece,” Francis adds. “The older athlete is aware of how his or her body has changed with age and will anticipate what is needed to perform.”
Scientists are also learning more about the benefits of exercise, findings that could lead to continued jaw-dropping performances by older athletes.
“We are learning that exercise actually reverses some basic aspects of ageing at the molecular level,” says Simon Melov, who directs genomics at Buck Institute for Age Research, Novato, California.
“Exercise doesn’t just make muscles stronger, it makes muscles younger.” Melov is studying the mitochondria of worms, mice and humans to create a genetic blueprint for what muscle looks like at different ages. His first study, involving 50 men and women, showed that six months of resistance training “made the muscle younger”, adding to fitness and agility.
Melov’s next study, which he hopes to begin next year, will involve twice the number of people and look at how a subject’s genetic fingerprint is affected by months of yoga, resistance training or endurance workouts.
“Our goal is to be able to take a biopsy from someone who is 50, for example, and to know whether the person has the muscle of someone younger or older,” says Melov, 46, who has increased his own running and weight training after seeing the results of his research.
A recent study at Stanford University School of Medicine supports the idea that exercise promotes longevity. Researchers compared more than 500 runners above age 50 over a 20-year period to a similar group of non-runners, looking at everything from rates of orthopaedic injuries to the ability to perform basic tasks.
Was running on hard surfaces going to cause the knees to age prematurely? And would the body in general fall apart from too much abuse and overtake any health benefits that occur in the short term? These were questions they sought to answer.
They found runners not only developed disabilities years later than non-runners, but the gap widened with time as subjects entered their 1980s and 1990s. “We did not expect to get such clear results,” says Jim Fries, senior author of the study and emeritus professor at the medical school. At 69, he runs 20 miles a week.
The new regimen
Sports scientists say the ability to compete at more advanced ages also has to do with a revolution in the understanding of what is needed to get a body ready to perform. “There is increased importance placed on the role of recovery, on giving a body rest,” says Chris Thompson, a sports scientist at the University of San Francisco. “Older athletes should not train seven days a week. If you’re 40, you can perform like you’re 25, but you can’t train like you’re 25.”
He said the nature of training for athletes of all ages also is changing. “A lot of exercise being done now comes from exercises once done for rehabilitation after an injury,” Thompson says.
“Ten years ago, ‘core training’ that focuses on strengthening the torso didn’t exist: Pilates, yoga, bridges on the floor, stability balls. It took bright people to say, ‘Hey, let’s do this on the front end.’”
Trainers and athletes now employ “periodization”, alternating workouts that are intense and light, long and short to prevent overtraining and burnout. Thompson says that he would not be surprised if the trend of older athletes continues in the 2012 Olympics.
©2008/The New York Times
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