What’s the Secret to Staying Forever Young?

“Superb fitness” can keep your mind and body strong as you age.

Posted Mar 31, 2016

Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock
Maintaining "superb fitness" into your eighties and nineties may help slow the aging process. 
Source: Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

A new study on an exceptionally fit group of octogenarian world-class athletes has identified that “superb fitness” keeps older people younger at a cellular level than their "average joe" peers.

The researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada studied a group of elite athletes who shined in their youth, and continued to compete as 'masters' athletes, as they got got older. This research adds to a growing body of evidence that physical exercise is the most effective way to keep your body, mind, and brain youthful and strong.

For this research, Geoffrey A. Power and colleagues in Guelph’'s Department of Human Health and Nutritional Science, compared world-class track and field athletes, who were in their 80s, with people in the general population of the same age who were healthy and living independently. Until now, there have been very few studies on the benefits of maintaining peak levels of fitness for senior citizens in this age group.

Stronger Leg Muscles = Stronger Brain Power

The study found that the athletes' legs were 25 percent stronger on average and had about 14 percent more total muscle mass. Additionally, the athletes had nearly one-third more motor units in their leg muscles than non-athletes. 

With normal aging, your nervous system loses motor neurons. This leads to a loss of motor units, reduced muscle mass, less strength, power, and speed. This chain reaction speeds up substantially after age 60. However, this degeneration didn’t happen to the super-fit athletes. These results challenge a widely held belief that slow-type fibers are resistant to interventions that slow cellular aging.

In these athletes, the researchers found more motor units—consisting of nerve and muscle fibers—which meant more muscle mass and subsequently greater strength  Other recent research from the UK identified leg strength as a marker for brain power in people over 65.

The March 2016 findings on the benefits of maintaining "supreme fitness" into your 80s were reported in two separate articles. The first paper, “Reduction in Single Muscle Fiber Rate of Force Development with Aging Is Not Attenuated in World Class Older Masters Athletes," was published in American Journal of Physiology.   

The second paper, “Motor Unit Number and Transmission Stability in Octogenarian World Class Athletes: Can Age-Related Deficits Be Outrun?” was published in Journal of Applied Physiology

These results demonstrate that high performing octogenarians maintain better neuromuscular stability and mitigate the loss of muscle units associated with aging well into the later decades of life. Future studies by the researchers will focus on identifying the role that genetics and exercise play in having neuroprotective benefits as related to changes in leg strength. In a statement, Powers said,

"One of the most unique and novel aspects of this study is the exceptional participants. These are individuals in their 80s and 90s who actively compete in world masters track and field championships. We have seven world champions. These individuals are the crème de la crème of aging. Therefore, identifying opportunities to intervene and delay the loss of motor units in old age is of critical importance."

This Canadian research on the age-defying benefits of leg strength dovetails beautifully with a November 2015 study, ”Kicking Back Cognitive Ageing: Leg Power Predicts Cognitive Ageing After Ten Years in Older Female Twins.” This UK study found a striking neuroprotective correlation between: muscle fitness (leg power), increases in total gray matter brain volume, and a 10-year cognitive benefit associated with leg strength.

The researchers at King's College, London focused specifically on twins’ muscles rather than their exercise habits largely because the measurement of leg strength stayed objective, while people’s recollections of how much they’ve exercised can be subjective and inaccurate. That said, the researchers acknowledge a strong correlation between the amount of self-reported exercise, stronger leg muscles, and more robust brain function.

“Supreme Fitness” Is Unattainable for Most of Us... But, Less Is Often More

As an egalatarian public health advocate, I’m always reluctant to send messages on well-being that are unrealistic or unattainable to the average person. There are a few important caveats in regards to reporting on the new study from the University of Guelph.

Clearly, there's a chance that someone reading this might feel discouraged or 'less than' if he or she isn't a world champion. There could be a knee-jerk reaction to say to yourself, "moderate levels of fitness don't make a difference, if I'm not crème de la crème, why even bother doing anything." This is irrational, negative thinking and empirically untrue.

Although this study looks at the resilience to aging seen in an extreme subgroup, there are mountains of empirical evidence which confirm that people from all walks of life benefit by investing small amounts of time and energy into staying physically active. Exercise is always going to pay huge dividends in terms of your long-term physical and psychological well-being, no matter who you are. 

For example, in a recent Psychology Today blog post, “What Is the No. 1 to Keep Your Brain Sharp?” I reported on a study which found that very moderate amounts of exercise could slow brain aging by up to ten years for people over age 65. The bottom line is: You don’t have to be a world-class athlete to reap the life-changing benefits of staying physically fit throughout your lifespan.

Also, please do not interpret these findings as a clarion call to become an exercise fanatic at the expense of leading a balanced life. It’s very easy to become obsessive and neurotic about trying to turn back the hands of time by maintaining “superb fitness.” Don't do it! 

The Sacrifices of Being a World-Class Athlete Take a Heavy Toll

I spent decades of my life, living in an isolated social vacuum while training and competing as an athlete on an elite international level. I know from first-hand experience that there's a point of diminishing returns when it comes to the sacrifice it takes to maintain world-class levels of peak performance.

I was reminded of the all-consuming sacrifice it took to be a world champion as I watched this clip of Michael Phelps (who many believe is past his prime) preparing for the 2016 Olympics. I have no regrets about the blood, sweat, and tears I poured into sports and competition ... but there's no way I would ever subject myself to this type of training again. For some reason, this YouTube clip brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it.

I am a happily retired athlete now, who is officially over the hill. Near the end of my athletic career, I realized that the physical and psychological toll of trying to fight my biological clock, and maintain unsustainable levels of ultra-endurance fitness, would ultimately cause me to self-destruct.

Luckily, I was able to let go of my 'glory days' as an athlete graciously by shifting gears to the cerebral pursuit of reinventing myself as a writer immediately after breaking a Guinness World Record. I don't ever beat myself up, or get down on myself, for no longer being an ideal specimen of athletic supremacy or in the kind of physical shape I was in during my prime.

As I approach becoming a senior citizen, I intend to continue exercising at a “tonic level” with occasional bursts of intensity, whenever the spirit moves me. I’m not interested in pounding my body into the ground for sports and competition. I believe that the “sweet spot” of life satisfaction and contentment lies in staying physically fit, pouring your heart into something you love, and maintaining a well-rounded, balanced life. All of these things will keep your body, mind, and brain young and strong for perpetuity.

Conclusion: "I Believe If I Refuse to Grow Old, I Can Stay Young Till I Die" 

Obviously, the group of elite masters athletes in the Canadian study are freakishly well-conditioned to a degree that is unattainable for most of us. Hats off to them for staying so dedicated to something they love doing into their 80s and 90s. 

That said, there are so many other recent studies which have found that relatively small amounts of moderate physical activity reap exponential benefits throughout your lifespan. Geoffrey Powers emphasizes that although this study was about elite athletes, non-athletes can benefit from these findings, too. He concluded, "Exercise is definitely an important contributor to functional performance. Staying active, even later in life, can help reduce muscle loss."

Hopefully, these findings will motivate you to be more physically active as you age. Again, you don’t have to be an Olympian or world-class athlete to reap the age-defying benefits of staying physically strong and active. A little bit of exercise goes a long way.

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts, 

I included this YouTube of "No Time At All" from Pippin in a previous PT blog post . . .This is such an uplifting and inspiring song about aging with joie de vivre.  I've included it again for anyone feeling like your "best days are yester" or who needs a musical anthem to help put some pep-in-your-step to exercise more and seize the day.  © 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.​

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