Exercise Keeps Muscles — and You — Young

A University of Guelph professor has uncovered the "secret" to staying strong as we age—superb fitness.

Geoff Power, PhD, found elderly people who were elite athletes in their youth or later in life—and who still compete as masters athletes—have much healthier muscles at the cellular level compared with those of nonathletes. His research is published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The study compared world-class track and field athletes in their 80s with people of the same age who are living independently. There have been few such studies of aging and muscle weakening in masters athletes in this age group.

"One of the most unique and novel aspects of this study is the exceptional participants," says Power, who joined the University of Guelph's department of human health and nutritional sciences last fall.

"These are individuals in their 80s and 90s who actively compete in world masters track and field championships. We have seven world champions. These individuals are the crème de la crème of aging."

The study found that athletes' legs were 25% stronger on average and had about 14% more total muscle mass. In addition, the athletes had nearly one-third more motor units in their leg muscles than nonathletes. More motor units, consisting of nerve and muscle fibers, mean more muscle mass and subsequently greater strength.

With normal aging, the nervous system loses motor neurons, leading to a loss of motor units, reduced muscle mass, and less strength, speed, and power. That process speeds up substantially past age 60. "Therefore, identifying opportunities to intervene and delay the loss of motor units in old age is of critical importance," Power says.

Power led the study as a visiting PhD student from Western University and the Canadian Centre for Activity and Aging at McGill University. He joined the University of Guelph last fall after a three-year postdoctoral at the University of Calgary. In another recent study, published in the American Journal of Physiology—Cell Physiology, he looked at muscle fiber samples from the same elite athlete/nonathlete group.

Power studies healthful aging from cells to the whole body. "Exercise is definitely an important contributor to functional performance," he says, adding that even nonathletes can benefit. "Staying active, even later in life, can help reduce muscle loss."

But, he adds, "we cannot rule out the importance of genetics." He says further research is needed to determine whether muscle health in elite athletes comes from training or genes.

— Source: University of Guelph