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On health: Age swimmingly

It’s not that Dara Torres is some freak of nature for still being a swimming speed demon at the ancient age of 41, doctors say.

It’s that the rest of us are slugs — or at least, we underestimate our potential.

“We traditionally have settled for too low a level of activity and blamed it on our age,” said Dr. Eric Coris, director of the Sports Medicine Institute at the University of South Florida.

But now Torres has blown away all our excuses. In case you missed it, earlier this month Torres qualified to go to the Olympics for a fifth time, setting a new U.S. record along the way.

To get there, Torres devotes her life to training. A New York Times Magazine story detailed her regimen: swimming five times a week, weight training four.

Kinda makes you feel guilty for sleeping in instead of working out this morning, doesn’t it?

Of course, you say, Torres isn’t like the rest of us. She has serious help: by the Times’ count, three coaches, two stretchers, two masseuses, a chiropractor and a nanny. Swimming is her job.

The rest of us, we’ve got real jobs.

“We’ve got career, we’ve got family, we’ve got all sorts of responsibilities in this vague term, middle age,” said exercise physiologist Joel Stager, director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University. “The time we have available to take care of moi is limited.”

But in his studies of other swimmers, Stager has learned lessons for athletes in any sport. What he finds: Skill and constant commitment really make a difference.

Stager’s swimmers take part in the U.S. Masters Swimming program — they’re adults who compete at all levels, from elite to amateur. They’re not people like Torres, but people like us, with other jobs and responsibilities. Except that they find an hour or so to swim almost every day.

What’s interesting about them is that they stay speedy for a long time. Sure, after about age 25, they start to slow down — but only by a small fraction of a second each year until they turn 50. After that, the decline speeds up, but it’s still less than a second per year.

As people age, their bodies change. Their muscle mass declines and their reaction time slows. But in master swimmers, Stager said, the decline is less than half that of the general population.

“This group is aging at a different rate,” he said. “Some of our new data is showing a 15-year offset.” For a long time, our model for how humans age has been based on the general population. But maybe, Stager said, we’re looking at the wrong model.

“The general population is not doing what is optimal,” he said. “The general population is overweight, and under-active, and too many people smoke, and their diets are too high in fat ... We want to look at people who have maintained their health for years and years.”

Of course, some of this depends on the sport. For longevity, swimming is better than football. “The typical athlete in the NFL who’s had a career over five years, often has sustained so much trauma that their bodies aren’t able to function at the same level,” Coris said.

With that in mind, Coris and Stager have advice for older athletes. Check with your doctor first. Consider lower-impact sports. Give yourself recovery time.

“Avoiding too much, too soon, too fast is a very important principle,” Coris said.

But they both practice what they preach. Coris, 38, works out nearly every day. Stager, 55, is a swimmer — even when he doesn’t want to be.

“There’s probably not a day that goes by that I can’t find an excuse,” Stager said. “So I pack it up and go swimming anyway.”

Lisa Greene really meant to get up and go running Friday morning. She can be reached at greene@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322.

On health: Age swimmingly 07/26/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 26, 2008 1:31am]

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