Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

Delaying the Aging Process

Delaying the Aging Process

by Dr. Paul Hutinger, Professor Emeritus

The Masters swimmer is fortunate to be in a program that starts at age 19. According to aging expert, Dr. Alex Comfort, the average person displays a rapid deterioration of physiological factors after age 25. This is the ideal age, therefore, to intervene with a regular training program. Participation in the Masters program provides competition a great motivational device which can induce both men and women to start or continue a training program.

Most aging experts, such as Comfort, Shock, Brunner, and Stamler base their conclusions on observations and measurements of the average American who is out of shape, fat, smokes, and drinks too much. For such sedentary individuals, rapid deterioration of the functioning of the physiological systems of the body results. The same deterioration takes place even in former champion athletes. However, since they have natural higher endowments to begin with, the deterioration is not as noticeable when compared to standard norms. How much of this loss of physiological functioning systems (such as cardiovascular and respiratory) is true aging and how much is due to hypokinetic disease (low activity level)? No one has all the answers, but research in this area demonstrates that high performance can be prolonged and maintained longer than previously thought. Older individuals, 70 and 80 years old, demonstrate remarkable rehabilitation improvements. Researchers, such as Dr. Herbert DeVries and Dr. Fred Kasch have collected interesting data of special interest to the trained Master swimmer.

DeVries, Professor Emeritus of Physiology at USC, has investigated this area of aging extensively. In a study at the Gerontology Research Center (USC), DeVries found that a proper amount of exercise increased the functional ability of the heart, lungs, and physical work capacity. The older men in their sixties and seventies, achieved percentages of improvement similar to that of young men. The study also indicated that exercise has an antiii-aging effect of the brain, thereby delaying the onset of senility. However, the lower the level initially, the greater the expected improvement. The intensity of training is usually in the 60% range, whereas top Masters swimmers need 80% intensity for maximizing physical work capacity and performance.

DeVries, later awarded a two-year grant by the Administration of Aging, studied the effects of exercise with a mobile research facility at Laguna Hills Leisure World in California. His subjects, 4l untrained oldsters ranging in age from 50-87, did hour-long workouts three times a week, including calisthenics, jogging, stretching, and water exercises. Within six weeks, he noticed profound changes between the exercisers and a control group in the same age range. Pre- and post-test data demonstrated a 4.9% drop in body fat, 6% reduction in diastolic blood pressure, 9.2% rise in maximum oxygen consumption,7.2% increase in the arms, and 15% reduction in nervous tension, measured by electromyography. In terms of physical functions, some persons in their seventies regained the vigor of their forties. Thus, a chronological age of 70 approximately equaled a physiological age of 40 or 50. These changes brought about psychological improvements, so that the individuals also had a sense of well-being.

Most aging experts state that after age 25, the deterioration of physiological factors equals about 1% a year. Research studies by H. B. Dill, a research exercise physiologist and an active person in good physical condition with oxygen consumption data on himself for over a 30-year period, substantiates this. His data demonstrates about 1% a year decline. Dr. Sid Robinson, a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University, measured world class runners in a 30-year longitudinal study and they showed a 1% decline. Although active, these runners do not train regularly. How hard most you train to intervene on the aging curve to prevent the 1% a year decline in physical work capacity? Does the highly trained individual decline at the same rate? A previously reported study partly answers these questions.

Dr. Fred Kasch’s reported longitudinal data in Medicine and Science in Sports, Spring, 1976, related to several variables in subjects during ten years of endurance exercise. The decline in physical working capacity normally ranges from 9 to 15% during the ages of 45 to 55 years. Studies suggest the use of physical activity to prevent this decline and possibly protect against heart infarction. Dr. Kasch’s study investigated the effect of endurance programs of the physical work capacity of middle-aged men for a ten year span. During this time, sixteen men trained with running or swimming at an average 86% intensity of maximum oxygen uptake. They ran about fifteen miles a week, and also swam five miles. He observed no changes in body weight, resting heart rate, or resting blood pressure. Maximum heart rate declined seven beats per minute for the ten years and pulmonary ventilation increased 18%. The physical work capacity, determined by oxygen uptake, remained about the same, with a beginning 3.376 compared to 3.303 liters per minute, ten years later. He concluded that the usual 9 to 15% decline in physical work capacity from the years 45-55 can be forestalled by regular endurance exercise of 86% intensity. The key in using exercise to intervene on the aging curve to prevent the 1% a year decline, seems to be the intensity of the endurance exercise. To equate this with heart rate, the 30 year old with a maximum rate of 200 beats per minute should work at about 170 beats per minute. The formula 220 minus age determines your maximum heart rate. For example, a 60 year old would have a theoretical maximum heart rate of 220 minus 60, or 160 beats per minute and should work at 128 beats per minute for an 80% intensity or 113 beats per minute for 86% intensity.

A 1983 grant from the Western Illinois Research Council enabled me to demonstrate a slowing down and reversal of several physiological aging variables. The controlled laboratory study, used 30 men, ages 30-62, randomly chosen from a group of 100. I measured the subjects before and after a ten week exercise program. Training consisted of riding a bicycle ergometer at a prescribed heart rate for 15 minutes a day, three days a week. I used bicycles rather than swim training so that the training work load could be controlled. Exercising for this short period produced a 20% increase in oxygen consumption (physical work capacity), a 10-20% increase in two functional lung tests and a 10% improvement in reaction time. Other studies of a longer duration also demonstrated a lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and improved EKG readings, as a result of participation in exercise programs.

Master swimmers will be most interested in the research directly related to swimming as it affects the aging profile. I am the subject of one of the few longitudinal studies on Masters swimming, conducted at Western Illinois University. The study investigates the various ramifications of long term effects of intensive year-round training. The physiological data and comparisons are shown in Figure 1.

Before the study began, I trained for two months a year, five days a week, from 1965 through 1969. To begin my study, I first took physiological measurements in 1970 when I initiated a year-round training program at age 46. My training consists primarily of interval training, averaging 2000 yards, six days a week. Such yardage approximates four or five miles of running per day. I am now reporting the 16th year of the study at age 62. Analysis of the longitudinal data on physiological aging factors demonstrates a slowing down of the aging process, compared to a normal aging curve in Figure 2. The normal curve, the result of our belief system, incorporates apparent myths related to aging. Many people believe those older than 25 or 30 years of age shouldn’t exercise. Many professionals erroneously believe that older persons won’t show a training effect and suggest that it could be detrimental to the health to train. The terms of the data shown in this report do not support such an attitude. These physiological measurements of a Masters swimmer 62 years old compare favorably to those of a 35-45 year old average male, demonstrating the possibilities for a Master swimmer to reverse the aging curve and to show a physiological functional ability of someone ten to twenty years younger. Masters swimming, an effective “anti-aging pill”, costs nothing, except for the hour a day invested in training.

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