As lifelong exercisers age, they find they can’t hit a tennis ball or golf ball as hard, run as fast, lift as heavy, or perform as well, whatever their sport. A study from Yokohama City University in Japan shows that this gradual decline is caused by loss of muscle strength. However, the most significant finding of the study was that older men can recover from hard workouts as quickly as younger men (Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, June 2006). Another encouraging study in the same journal, from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, shows that men over 60 who exercise regularly are far stronger than their non-exercising counterparts.
A study from Brock University in Canada also shows that older people can recover from hard exercise as fast as young children can (Exercise and Sports Science Reviews, July 2006). The authors feel that previous studies on the subject are flawed. Since children cannot exercise at the same intensity as older people can, they do not put as much stress on their muscles as older people do and therefore do not suffer as much muscle damage. It is the decreased intensity causing less muscle damage that allows children to appear to recover faster from all-out exercise. Children can put only about 60 to 80 percent of the power per weight exerted by adults. They do not work as hard during intense exercise, evidenced by far less lactic acid in their blood streams. Children can do more repeat sets of lifting heavy weights because they do not lift as close to their maximum as adults do. They can do more “attempted all out” wind sprints than adults do because they don’t work as close to their maximum. So the decline in athletic performance with aging is not caused by failure to recover from hard exercise.
If you are an older athlete who competes in sports, you will be able to recover from your hard training days as fast as younger athletes, but you will gradually lose strength, speed and coordination.
Every muscle in your body is made of millions of individual fibers. Each fiber is enervated by a single nerve that causes it to contract. With aging, you lose nerve fibers. So with each loss of a nerve fiber, you lose use of the corresponding muscle fiber and, with fewer functioning muscle fibers, you lose strength. Coordination drops also because of the loss of nerve fibers. Since speed depends on strength, you also lose speed.
However, if you exercise regularly, you enlarge each of the remaining individual muscle fibers. Even if you have fewer functioning fibers, the larger individual fibers can generate more force to make you stronger.
The good news from these studies is that the same training principles apply at any age. Even if you cannot compete effectively against younger people, you are likely to find yourself winning age-group competitions as your peers drop out. If you are not a regular exerciser, it’s never too late to start.
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Dr. Gabe Mirkin has been a radio talk show host for 25 years and practicing physician for more than 40 years; he is board certified in four specialties, including sports medicine. Read or listen to hundreds of his fitness and health reports — and the FREE Good Food Book — at http://www.DrMirkin.com