Even with low gears designed for an old man, I’m finding the climb up Germantown Road more than I can manage. It’s been getting worse since I became an octogenarian a year ago.
Although I don’t like what’s happening, my mood is improving since I started reading Vonda Wright, MD, MS, who is director of PRIMA (Performance and Research Initiative for Master Athletes) at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.
Wright’s understanding of the impact of aging on athletic performance draws upon a study of 2,599 senior athletes who were performing in the 2001 Senior Olympics in New Orleans.
Admittedly, the people whose performances were analyzed were atypical of all Americans in that age range; they were mostly white, well educated, and largely free from “comorbidities” such as heart trouble and diabetes. Since I fit within this sample, Wright’s analysis is immediately germane to me and other older, strong cyclists whom I know.
The study indicates that for the entire group studied performance ability gradually declines from age 50 until about age 70. At age 75, however, the rate of decline takes a sharp turn upward and continues on that trajectory through age 85. This study did not provide data for people past that age.
The charts and tables that Wright includes in her essay (published in 2008) provide detail that is pertinent to senior cyclists. Runners who do the 1,000 meter distance show the uptick at age 75, but runners doing shorter distances make the upward turn a few years earlier. Apparently, the fast-twitch muscles used in sprints are less resistant to aging than the slow-twitch muscles used in distance events (including road cycling).
The study compares performance characteristics of senior athletes with people of the same age in the general population and shows that the pattern is similar across the entire spectrum. The rate of decline accelerates at about the same age. It is encouraging to note, however, that athletes who keep up their patterns of activity decline more slowly than others.
That fact alone makes me want to stay with my hard core cycling even if I have to walk up the steeper portions of Germantown Road.
It’s easier to accept the slow down that comes with aging when we understand why it happens. Here Wright’s medical training provides some of the information we need.
Loss of muscle strength: As we age, we experience a gradual loss of lean muscle and a corresponding infiltration of fat into muscle tissue. Fast-twitch muscles are more susceptible than slow-twitch.
Wright cites literature which states that aerobic exercise by itself does not prevent this change. This helps me understand why my legs don’t produce the power they used to when I continue to ride lots of miles at a fast pace and with lots of push.
All of the studies indicate, however, that strength training—weight lifting—can reverse this tendency. With the right program of weight training, older adults can regain much of the lost lean muscle mass and recover a muscle composition similar to that of younger people.
Loss of endurance capacity: Endurance, Wright points out, is dependent upon the body’s ability to process oxygen and maintain a high threshold for lactate buildup. Both are related to heart rate, cardiac output, and tissue oxygen uptake.
In her 2009 book, Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age (written with the assistance of Ruth Winter, MS), Wright provides a concise explanation of how the heart changes as we age. She also cites studies indicating that the rate of decline is significantly reduced by regular, aggressive exercise.
“Note that the age-predicted heart rate maximum decreased one beat per year after the age of 10. Each year we age, our hearts are capable of beating less quickly. This is due to a slower time of contraction and a longer rest between beats.”
This hard fact is ameliorated by evidence that “intense endurance exercise, performed through one’s life span, has been found to cut the decline in VO2 max in half.” Inevitably, our hearts gradually slow down, but with the right kind of exercise program, their performance ability declines less rapidly.
Much of Wright’s book is devoted to a program she calls FACE: Flexibility, Aerobic exercise, Carrying a load, Equilibrium. She provides instructions for exercises and activities that can be done at home or in hotel rooms, wherever people find themselves. She is persuaded that all older people can stay fit longer than most people do.
I’m never going to be young again, but with Wright’s help I may be able, come spring, to ride all the way up Germantown Road.
Best of all, walking nary a step!
(The sturdy referred to above is “Age-Related Rates of Decline in Performance Among Elite Senior Athletes,” by Vonda J. Wright, MD, and Brett C. Perricelli, MD, published in The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 36.3 (March 2008), 443-450. Fitness After 40 is published by American Management Association, 2009.)