The Muscles of Old, Still Active Athletes are as Aged as Those of Non-Athletes

The oldest of active athletes retain greater muscle power than the average older person, though there is always the question of cause and effect: to what degree is this a consequence of the choice to continue as an athlete, accompanied by all that exercise, versus being a situation in which an individual can only continue to be an athlete because he or she happens to be more resilient. As this study demonstrates, the resistance to age-related loss of overall muscle power in these individuals is not due to suffering a lower level of the shared fundamental degeneration of capabilities in muscle fibers:

Elite runners do not experience the muscle weakening associated with aging as non-athletes do. Movement and strength come from the muscle fibers that make up a muscle group contracting and generating tension. Muscle weakening happens when the fibers contract slower and with less force. Muscle fiber samples were taken from the quadriceps of older elite runners and non-athlete adults in the same age range. "These are individuals in their 80s and 90s who actively compete in the world masters track and field championships. In the study, we had seven world champions, and everyone placed in the top four of their respective events."

The fibers' contraction speed and force were compared to fibers from 23-year-old non-athlete adults. Muscle fibers from older non-athletes contracted considerably slower and weaker than fibers from young non-athletes. To the researchers' surprise, the muscle fibers of masters athletes contracted at a speed and force similar to those of older non-athlete adults, not the young adults. Success in high-performance sports in old age does not appear to be due to maintained contraction capability of the fibers. This study suggests that aging is associated with decreased muscle quality regardless of physical activity status. However, other studies have shown that muscle fibers can be arranged in a variety of ways to optimize strength, speed and power of the whole muscle, so there are many structural ways to compensate for the reduced performance at the fiber level to maintain performance at the whole muscle level.



I hate to sound like a broken record but there is more to the world of fitness and health than running. Why are scientists obsessed with running? Also, I don't have the details to hand, but I've even heard running can cause muscle wastage.

Posted by: Louis at December 23rd, 2015 8:06 AM


Competition running would not be my choice as an anti-aging therapy.

This being said, the result makes a lot of sense. I am surprised that they were surprised by their own results. You might expect the muscles from athletes to age slower, but why would you assume that they would not age?

I'd say that the best you should hope for is a small reduction in the rate of aging, coupled with greater muscle mass and stronger bones. Getting this result consistently would be fantastic! But a runner in his 70s is still in his 70s. Until we have rejuvenation technology, that's not going to change.

Posted by: Daniel Lemire at December 23rd, 2015 9:05 AM


Hi Louis !

I believe the reason lies in the fact that it's a full workout for the body, an aerobic workout that engages Entire system vs other type of exercises that do not as much (like for example non-aerobic 'muscle locational' exercises that emphasise a couple of muscles precisely only, like lifting weights is mainly for arms or leg muscle). Aeroby, like running and dancing rapidly, are some of the most taxing on the body once you 'aerobically' activate by engaging All your muscles and this sends out signal to the brain (like PGC activation from whole skeletal muscle engagement) and increases cardiovascular flow throughput dramatically; your heart must pump Fast, blood flow rises for maximized O2 transport to muscles and maintain VO2 oxygen efficiency energy use by rapid breathing, as O2 falls in muscles and lactic acid is produced as residue to fuel this ever hypoxic energy deficient state by aerobic muscles overload demand; called anabolism (lactate back-up energy residue production which causes muscle fibre wastage and sarcopenia when lasting too long, it is an evolutionary backup energy mechanism for muscles, evolutionary because during the ice age era and before even, ancient cave hominids had to hunt and the hunt was stressful, taxing, deadly, it activated the Fight or Flight response in their brain via adrenal glands releasing adrenaline and corticosteroids in bloodstream as stress-counter mechanism to Respond to the threath of death; in either case the fear of dying inthe hunt, the running, the fighting against enemy tribes or huge ancient savage animals, it all required an increase in muscle aerobic power, anabolism was the answer). Plus running is one of the most studied exercise in mice running continuously in their little wheel. And, one last thing, have you noticed the body difference between an endurance marathon runner vs a body builder weigth lifter vs soccer players vs a extreme sprint speed runber. There is a large difference, the marathon runner is skeletic, sometimes border anorexic, with not so much muscle mass from endurance and exhaustion muscle wastage,
the body builder has big body and large 'pumped up' muscle mass but is not that chiseled, the soccer player is more average but his legs are real thick and sculpted from running yards on the huge terrain back and forth, the speed runner is quite definitely the most interesting one; he is sculpted like a Michelangelo statue, every one of his protuding muscle is chiseled beyond belief from head to toe (full skeletal muscle engagement by running), Extreme Sculpture. If you have seen world record speed runners (like Usain Bolt world Jamaican champion) run a speed race in Slow Motion, It's scary... Their razor-sculpted muscles jiggling are so engaged they seem like super human Athletes. That is why running is considered the highest primal form of aeroby and hence whyscientist are, understandably, obsessed with this form of exercise.

Posted by: CANanonymity at December 23rd, 2015 10:07 AM

@ Louis

Disclaimer: This is a non-scientific response back by own experience.

For my age I think I'm quite active: hiking, kayaking, cross country skiing, snowshoeing (no running).

However, as a software engineer I'm used to sit in front of a computer 8-10 hours a day. Over the years I noticed a considerably decline of my arm muscles and at the age of 58 I decided to go to the gym and do some weight lifting.

I do that now for more then 2 years three times a week and could not just gain more muscles, but also improve my overall well being.

As a side note, I don't take any protein supplements but practice quite strict paleo diet and calorie restriction for more than 5 years.

Having said that, I think there are other ways to look at age related muscle power.

Posted by: bardu at December 23rd, 2015 9:56 PM
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