A number of studies have shown that it is possible to be both old and very healthy in comparison to your peers, and surveying older athletes is a good way to find some of those old, very healthy people. The big question is one of causation: are they healthy because they are athletes, or did they become healthy athletes because they are more physically robust, thanks to genetic or other differences? This is a part of the uncertainty over whether more exercise is always better and the degree to which genetics versus lifestyle versus chance contributes to the course of aging.
People who exercise on a regular basis up to the age of 80 have the same aerobic capacity as someone half their age, says a new study. "These athletes are not who we think of when we consider 80-year-olds because they are in fantastic shape. They are simply incredible, happy people who enjoy life and are living it to the fullest. They are still actively engaged in competitive events."
Researchers examined nine endurance athletes from northern Sweden and compared them to a group of healthy men from Indiana in the same age group who only performed the activities of daily living with no history of structured exercise. The endurance athletes were cross-country skiers, including a former Olympic champion and several national/regional champions with a history of aerobic exercise and participation in endurance events throughout their lives. The athletes exercised four to six times a week, averaging 3,700 more steps per day than the non-exercisers.
Members of the two study groups rode exercise bikes as researchers measured oxygen uptake. When the participants reached total exhaustion, they had reached maximum oxygen uptake (also known as VO2 max). Skeletal muscle biopsies were then taken to measure the capacity of their mitochondria, the aerobic base of their muscle and other cells. The study also found the endurance athletes established new upper limits for aerobic power in men 80-91 years old, including a maximum oxygen uptake that was nearly twice that of untrained men their age.
"To our knowledge, the VO2 max of the lifelong endurance athletes was the highest recorded in humans in this age group, and comparable to nonendurance-trained men 40 years younger. We also analyzed the aerobic capacity of their muscles by examining biopsies taken from thigh muscles, and found it was about double that of typical men. In fact, the oldest gentleman was 91 years old, but his aerobic capacity resembles that of a man 50 years younger. It was absolutely astounding."