People who exercise on a regular basis up to the age of 80 have the same aerobic capacity as someone half their age, says a new study from Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.
New Records in Aerobic Power Among Octogenarian Lifelong Endurance Athletes, a Ball State research project conducted in collaboration with several Swedish researchers, found that the longtime athletes in the study are enjoying vibrant and healthy lives. The study was recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
"In this case, 80 is the new 40," said the study's lead author Scott Trappe, director of Ball State's Human Performance Laboratory.
"These athletes are not who we think of when we consider 80-year-olds because they are in fantastic shape. They are simply incredible, happy people who enjoy life and are living it to the fullest. They are still actively engaged in competitive events."
Researchers examined nine endurance athletes from northern Sweden and compared them to a group of healthy men from Indiana in the same age group who only performed the activities of daily living with no history of structured exercise.
The endurance athletes were cross-country skiers, including a former Olympic champion and several national/regional champions with a history of aerobic exercise and participation in endurance events throughout their lives. The athletes exercised four to six times a week, averaging 3,700 more steps per day than the non-exercisers.
Members of the two study groups rode exercise bikes as researchers measured oxygen uptake. When the participants reached total exhaustion, they had reached maximum oxygen uptake (also known as VO2 max). Skeletal muscle biopsies were then taken to measure the capacity of their mitochondria, the aerobic base of their muscle and other cells.
The study also found the endurance athletes established new upper limits for aerobic power in men 80 to 91 years old, including a maximum oxygen uptake that was nearly twice that of untrained men their age.
"To our knowledge, the VO2 max of the lifelong endurance athletes was the highest recorded in humans in this age group, and comparable to nonendurance-trained men 40 years younger," Trappe said. "We also analyzed the aerobic capacity of their muscles by examining biopsies taken from thigh muscles, and found it was about double that of typical men. In fact, the oldest gentleman was 91 years old, but his aerobic capacity resembles that of a man 50 years younger. It was absolutely astounding."
A person's VO2 max is proving to be a better predictor of mortality than many better-known cardiovascular risk factors, Trappe said. Based upon the VO2 max findings, the lifelong exercisers have a 50 percent lower all-cause mortality risk compared with the untrained men.
The current research is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Examining the potential for exercise to improve the quality of life for America's aging population has been a cornerstone of research for the Human Performance Laboratory.
Trappe said the study fills in an important knowledge gap for aerobic capacity, given that individuals living beyond 80 are the fastest expanding age demographic in our society
"Since we are living longer, our research indicates that lifelong exercise enhances physical capacity, has powerful anti-aging effects, and emphasizes that exercise is medicine," Trappe said. "If we can get people to embrace some sort of regular exercise routine, we can improve their lives."