Just to start this article off on what it’s NOT about. There won’t be any references to Hugh Heffner or other celebrities that married someone with a huge age gap. This isn’t the subject of this article.
We’re going to be discussing the effects age has on human performance, especially in the area of physical activity and sports.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about this common question: “Is age just a number?”
It’s a common belief that once we get to a certain age, we can no longer perform physically the way we used to in our younger days.
“I used to be able to do that!”, “I try that now and I’ll be feeling it for the next week!”, these quotes resonates with a lot of the older crowd that were involved in sports and athletics in their younger days.
But we have some that argues age really is just a number, and that it’s not indicative of our ability to perform the same physical feats that we performed effortlessly years ago.
It’s no longer surprising to see people in their later 50’s and 60’s perform different incredible feats of strength like handstand pushups, acrobatic flips, or hang with the younger guys in a variety of sports.
So what’s the deal? How much does age limit us exactly?
Effects of Aging and Physical Performance
Without having to go into scientific details (yet!), it’s evident that physical performance declines with age. The older we get, the
less we may be able to do on a physical level than before.
But the reason for this article is that the age at which our performance drops may be much higher than we once thought. We might actually be able to do the same things into our late 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and beyond.
Just to give some real life examples, here are a list of Olympians from this past 2016 Rio Olympics that some may consider to be over the hill:
- Mary Hanna, 61, Australian dressage rider
- John Whitaker, 61, British show jumper
- Lesley Thompson-Willie, 56, Canadian rower
- Phillip Dutton, 52, equestrian from U.S.
- Oksana Chusovitina, 41, Uzbekistan gymnast
- Warren Potent, 54, Australian shooter
- Meb Keflezighi, 40, marathoner from U.S.
- Jo Pavey, 42, British track and field competitor
- Bernard Lagat, 41, U.S. track and field
Notice that more than half of these athletes are participating in events that requires a lot of physical exertion. Marathons, track and field events, gymnastics and rowing are all very taxing on the body, and these athletes are keeping up with the best in the
world in their 40’s and 50’s!
But here are some scientific evidence indicating that regardless of how in shape some of these “more advanced in years” athletes are, aging does diminish our physical and athletic abilities.
Evidence On Endurance
Researchers comparing data from a group of Masters athletes (age 40 and above) and that from athletes in their 20’s and 30’s found a direct correlation with age and endurance performance decline.
The researchers concluded that for most athletes, their prime years of physical endurance is somewhere from age 25 to 35¹.
Another study looked at the VO2Max of various athletes. If you recall my articles on HIIT, you’d know that VO2Max is a measure of the maximum amount of oxygen we can consume in a given period of time.
The researchers for this study found that from 35 years old to 55 years old, our VO2Max declines about 10%².
That means the average person will be able to consume 10% less oxygen than they did 20 years ago when they hit 55.
But no information was given on the participant of this study regarding their diet, lifestyle, training habits, etc. So it’s hard to say if this statistic is representative of the human race as a whole.
Matter of fact, we have some evidence that may show otherwise.
On The Bright Side
So it seems that aging does decline performance at the age that we previously thought huh? The big 4-0 is when everything goes down hill apparently, according to both common knowledge and science.
Interestingly, the same study that showed the 10% decline of VO2Max also showed that runner’s past the age of 40 can better deal with lactic acid than younger athletes. In reality, it’s really the positive hydrogen ions and the lactic acid is a result of that. But it seems older athletes can go longer and harder even under the same amount of discomfort than younger athletes.
And it’s no secret that training consistency is vital in not just progress, but the upkeep of our physical fitness. Regardless of age, being consistent is the only way to at the very least maintain our results.
So it’s no surprise that another study found that by consistently training, Masters level athletes showed a much less decline in VO2Max than those that did not exercise regularly³.
Researchers concluded that by cutting down the decline of VO2Max and being able to fight through the lactic acid better than younger athletes, “aging” athletes might give their younger counterparts a run for their money.
It’s not uncommon to see Masters level athletes do better and have better times in endurance events than a lot of the younger athletes.
On an interesting note, Canadian trainer Barrie Shepley said that athletes continue to increase in vascularity as they age. This means their blood vessels dilate more, blood flow increases and more oxygen can be transported around the body.
So an older athlete is actually better equipped endurance-wise than a younger one. It’s just the power output that diminishes and can cause a problem.
But overall, it seems there are even hidden advantages to aging.
General Health Reasons Too
Just because some of us aren’t athletes doesn’t mean this doesn’t have implications for us. We all still need to keep up our physical fitness like we discussed earlier.
Muscle atrophy, bone loss, and decline in muscle strength are all too common in those of us advanced in years. Medicine to mask the symptoms and pain are usually the first go to “solution” for a lot of those suffering from these.
Surgery and other types of therapy are usually performed sooner or later. Artificially altering the structures of our bodies to relieve pain and discomfort that should be there in the first place.
Why go through all that when we can prevent this early on? (Hint: classic case of ounce of prevention > pound of cure)
Just to give you more reasons to keep up with your exercise routine, here’s another scientific study. This time, it was focused on the lean muscle mass of athletes as they aged.
The study found athletes that continued their exercise routines even into their advanced years showed no loss of muscle strength until the age of 60 to 69.
Note that these athletes worked out about 4 to 5 times per week, training the same way as they did when they were competing in different sports like running, swimming, and cycling.
Strength was measured by peak torque measurements in the muscle, which were not found to show any decline until the age of 60-69 as said before. And even then, the strength loss is minimal within that time period4.
Furthermore, no additional strength loss was found between those in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. So it’s not as if we’re getting progressively weaker as we age within that age range, GIVEN that we’re being consistent with our exercise.
Although lean muscle mass might not be as fortunate, I don’t think most of us in our late 60’s and beyond are looking to become the next Mr. Olympia.
Just The Surface?
There are quite a few lessons we can take away from these studies here. First off, to answer the question we had at the outset of this article.
No, age is NOT just a number. It does indeed affect out performance in a negative way as our numbers increase. But this number doesn’t dictate our physical performance in anyway.
Not to mention there’s a lot, and I mean A LOT we can do to mitigate most of the damage.
And know this information should prompt us to be health conscious, even in our early years. Old habits die hard, and if we’re used to leading an unhealthy way of living now, not only will we suffer for the consequences later, it’ll be much harder to break those habits then.
For those of us already within that age range, it’s comforting to know that we can still be in great shape and even beat out some of the younger athletes at their sport if we choose to. The choice is up to you to make for a healthier lifestyle.
The best part about all of this?
These are only the information that we know now with current science.
Just like the study that found older athletes can better handle lactic acid (hydrogen ions really as we said) than younger athletes, what other revelations will we come across with future scientific developments?
Maybe some of these discoveries will explain more in detail of the inner workings of aging athletes and how their body and internal functions change that allows them to keep up and even best the younger crowd.
I don’t know about you, but I’m very excited of what future discoveries hold, especially in the physical performance field. I hope you share the same enthusiasm and excitement as I do!
- Hirofumi T, Douglas R. (2008) Endurance exercise performance in Masters athletes: age-associated changes and underlying physiological. The Journal of Physiology, Vol 586.1, 55-63
- Jeremiah P, Christopher A, Dale C, Paul L, Daryl P. (2008) Physiological Characteristics of Masters-Level Cyclists. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Vol 22 No. 5, 1434-1440.
- Pollock M, Foster C, Knapp J, Rod L, Schmidt D. (1987) Effect of age and training on aerobic capacity and body composition of master athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology. Vol 62, 725-731.
- Andrew W, Francesca A, mark S, Bret G, Vonda W. (2011) Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Muscle Mass in masters Athletes. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. Vol 39, No. 3, 172-178.