Our preconceptions about what’s possible are changing.
The tonic, you won’t be surprised to learn, is regular, lifelong exercise to condition your cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems.
At least one study suggests the amounts, types and frequency of the workouts necessary to maintain speed and fitness. You’ll benefit from regular, several-times-a-week exercise whenever you start, but beginning early in life and sticking with a program appears to hold the greatest value.
When Scott Trappe, director of the human performance laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., and colleagues tested nine elite, lifelong athletes older than 80, they found their cardiovascular fitness to be “comparable to non-endurance-trained men 40 years younger.
” The level of conditioning of these athletes — all had been top-flight cross-country skiers, and one had been an Olympic champion — was “associated with lower risk for disability and mortality,” according to Trappe’s 2012 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
A major reason for that is the strength of their well-conditioned hearts. “Once you get to late middle age, 45 to 60, the heart starts to shrink and stiffen,” said Benjamin Levine, director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. “And that makes it less able to expand when you start pumping blood back to it, and therefore you can’t send as much volume” to the muscles. “People who have trained their whole lives, they can prevent that from happening,” he said.
“Once you get to late middle age, 45 to 60, the heart starts to shrink and stiffen, that makes it less able to expand when you start pumping blood back to it, and therefore you can’t send as much volume to the muscles. People who have trained their whole lives, they can prevent that from happening”
Slowing A Decline In Fitness
Dee Nelson of Gaithersburg, 69, started racing at age 34 and ran her first Cherry Blossom 10-miler in 76:55 in 1985. Ten years later, she ran the same race in 73:32, according to meticulous records she has kept of the 1,490 road races she has run. She has begun to slow in recent years but has stayed ahead of most of her peers. She finished the 2013 Cherry Blossom April 7 in 87:11, good enough for third place in her age group.
“I pretty much run to exhaustion, but I don’t feel any pain,” Nelson said. “My health is the most important thing I have, and I think that’s why I’ve been running all these years.”
Nelson may be a genetic outlier — in 2009, she set an age-group record in the gold standard fitness test at Dallas’s Cooper Clinic — but she also has followed a training regimen developed by the clinic’s founder, Kenneth Cooper, that emphasizes the preventive power of fitness.
Four or five workouts a week — one of them speedwork, one of them a long, slow distance run — appears to provide the optimal defense against declining speed and cardiac strength, Levine said. (Most experts also recommend two weekly strength training sessions to maintain muscle and bone fitness, but Levine did not study that.)
Move It or Lose It seems to be the best advice. Moving it earlier and regularly is the solution.