Being a world-class distance run ner in your youth does not guar antee that you will be fit and healthy in retirement. But it helps, according to a new study that followed a group of elite American runners for 45 years.
The study’s findings raise interesting questions about how we can and should age and the role that youthful activity might play in our health later in life. Published this month in `Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise’, the study began almost 50 years ago, with a spate of coaching and testing that took place just before the 1968 Summer Olympic track and field trials in the US.
At that time, Jack Daniels, an exercise physiologist, began working with some of America’s top distance running prospects. He tested 26 extensively , determining their aerobic capacity , or VO2 max, and many other measures of health and performance capability . All of the runners, in their early to mid-20s, were in exceptional shape, with aerobic capacities at or above the 98th percentile for men of their age.
They were tested again in 1993 and 2013 (by then, three had died and one refused to take part). During the 2013 test, when asked about the exercise routines, the men revealed that, in general, they exercised for a few hours each week by walking, jogging or cycling.
But their fitness remained relatively outsized, Sarah Everman, Daniels’ colleague at AT Still University who worked on the study as well, found out. Each man’s VO2 max in 2013, though lower than in 1968 and 1993, still placed them in the top 10% or so of older American men, based on tables developed in recent years using cardiovascular testing data from thousands of aging people. These men’s lives suggest that greater fitness is possible in old age, even for those of us who were not previously Olympians, Everman says.“These guys were not training hard“ by the time they became septuagenarians, she says, and most already had eased back considerably in their workout routines by the 1993 testing, she says, when they were middleaged. If the rest of us followed a similar workout trajectory during our lives, she says, we might wind up with a higher VO2 max than otherwise in our old age, resetting both our expectations about age-related fitness and the existing tables.