Those who exercise in youth have 'younger' muscles in old age, study says
Experts from University of Guelph, in Canada, revealed elderly people who were elite athletes in their youth – or later in life – have much ‘younger muscles.’
The elderly people at the heart of the study still compete as master athletes in their old age, and have much healthier muscles at the cellular level than those of non-athletes.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared world-class track and field athletes in their 80s with people the same age who were living independently.
There has been little research of aging and muscle weakening in master athletes in this age group – until now.
Lead study author Dr Geoff Power said: ‘One of the most unique and novel aspects of this study is the exceptional participants. These are people 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.’
The elderly athletes’ legs were found to be 25 per cent stronger on average than their non-athlete counterparts. Furthermore, the athletes also had nearly 14 per cent more total muscle mass. They also were determined to have nearly one-third more motor units in their leg muscles than non-athletes. More motor units – which consist of nerve and muscle fibers – mean more muscle mass and greater strength, the study noted. With normal aging processes, the nervous system loses motor neurons – which leads to a loss of motor units, reduced muscle mass and less strength, speed and power. That process accelerates substantially after the age of 60.
Dr Power said: ‘Therefore, identifying opportunities to intervene and delay the loss of motor units in old age is of critical importance.’
The scientist looked at muscle fibers in the same elite athlete and non-athlete groups in another recent study, as well.
‘Exercise is definitely an important contributor to functional performance,’ he said, noting that even non-athletes can benefit.
‘Staying active, even later in life, can help reduce muscle loss.’
But, Dr Power added, ‘We cannot rule out the important of genetics.’