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  Latest update: 12/1/2023

Aging and Physical Performance

Physical performance naturally declines as we age, but staying physically active will slow the process. And interval training, specifically, provides the greatest anti-aging benefits (read more below)

The Physiology

Physiologic and performance measures peak in the late teens and 20s, and then decline with age. However different measures decline at differing rates and the rates of deterioration vary according to a person's lifestyle (the old "use it or lose it" philosophy).

a) Bones (osteoporosis)

Aging is accompanied by a loss of bone mineral content. Although the role of a high calcium diet (or calcium supplements) in slowing or preventing this process is controversial, there is strong evidence to support the benefits of regular physical activity to maintain muscle, tendon, and bones. However, all exercise is not equal. Exercise that induces microscopic bone deformity (running and hopping) is much better for bone health than non jarring activities such as swimming and cycling.

This study compared elite runners to cyclists. Even though the cyclists included weight lifting in their off season training, it did not compensate for the lack of a "jarring" activity. The result? The cyclists, as a group, all had thinner bones than the runners, and more than half of them met medical criteria for low bone mineral density in some portion of their skeleton.

So if you do not regularly cross train, consider adding regular bone-stressing activities to your weekly routine:

If you have limited time, jumping rope for 10 minutes a day is the most efficient approach.

As to diet, this blog suggests drinking an extra glass of milk a day isn't the answer and a better strategy might be an increase in the non dairy, high calcium foods in your diet.

b) Muscles

Muscle strength peaks between ages 20 and 30, and then, without a regular exercise program, falls off. The increasing weakness is the result of both Muscle mass decreases 3-8 % per decade after the age of 30, accelerating as we pass 60. Some muscle loss (sarcopenia) is inevitable, but we can minimize the rate of loss by paying attention to our level of physical activity (more activity will minimize muscle loss) and our diet (adequate dietary protein is required to maintain muscle repair and growth.)

Focused resistance training will decrease the rate of muscle mass with aging. Three or four times a week. Don't overdo the weight - you should be able to do twenty repetitions but be working hard for number twenty-one. Two sets are better, but if you have limited time, getting to the gym every other day is more important than doing two sets on fewer visits. Proper technique is critical to getting the desired results without incurring an injury. You can also use the perceived level of exertion to determine the amount of resistance to use. Judge your effort. It should be "somewhat hard". (More on using a "feeling scale" to set resistance training levels.) Do 20 reps at this level of exertion - which should bring you to the point at which you would normally stop from fatigue.

A study of men, 60 to 72, training with standard muscle resistance exercises, produced strength improvement equal to young adults. Another revealed that a group of 70 year olds, regularly training from age 50, had a muscle mass equivalent to a group of 28 year old students. I thought this NYT article was a nice summary of options and strategies. It shows you can turn things around within 3 months on a 3 times per week resistance training program that includes adequate dietary protein.

But you need more than just focused gym activity for maximum benefit. Studies have shown that sitting for long periods not only blunts the benefits of regular aerobic training (compared with those who reported sitting time less than 4 hours per day with high physical activity level, the group who sat for 8 or more hours per day experienced a 17% higher risk for early death and heart disease) but also blunted muscle cell growth and repair. Researchers found that subjects forced to take a break and walk around every thirty minutes increased the use of dietary protein (amino acids) to grow and repair muscle tissue much more efficiently than when they were only sitting. As a bonus, just two minutes of activity also improved how the body processed dietary carbohydrates (a decrease in insulin resistance).

And don't forget to review you daily protein intake as your muscles need adequate protein to respond to the resistance training. We know that older people absorb protein less efficiently, so you will need at least half a gram of protein per pound of ideal body weight, an amount well above what most older people typically consume.

You will need both adequate protein and resistance exercise to combat the muscle loss of aging. Just as exercise without adequate diet protein is less effective for muscle growth, increasing the protein in your diet without resistance exercise will not "force" muscle growth.

In addition to adequate resistance training and protein intake, a third factor may contribute to the weakness of aging - a decrease in the maximal contractile force of the muscle.

This study compared the force of individual muscle cell contraction across 3 groups - 80 year old master athletes, a cohort of sedentary peers (also 80 y/o), and a third group of 23 year olds. Although it has been speculated that the regular training of master athletes blunts aging's effects on individual muscle cell performance, the data showed otherwise. "... when contractile force was normalized to cross sectional area ...both older (masters aged) groups did not differ, and the MA (masters) and NA (sedentary) were both approximately 45% weaker compared with younger volunteers."

How can regular exercise blunt this inexorable decrease an individual muscles functioning? Regular exercise minimizes the expected loss of "motor units" (MU), the basic contractile unit in an intact muscle, with aging. The motor unit is a single motor neuron and the several muscle fibers that respond when it is "fired". A single neuron can innervate several muscle cells, so a motor unit is not necessarily limited to a single nerve/muscle fiber but can be a single nerve/multiple cell unit.

This 2010 study revealed that the number of functioning motor units in the tibialis anterior of masters runners (approximately 65 y/o) was comparable to the values in recreationally active young volunteers (approximately 25 y/o), and significantly greater than healthy age-matched controls (approximately 65 y/o). "The estimated number of MU did not differ between masters runners and young, but MU number estimates were lower in the older sedentary group (91 +/- 22 MU) compared with the masters runners (140 +/- 53 MU) and young (150 +/- 43 MU)."

It confirmed that a greater preservation of the number of motor units rather than the functioning of individual contractile muscle cells offers another explanation for a Master Athlete's exceptional athletic performance.

Although the impact of aging on individual cells cannot be stopped, regular exercise provides us a tool to compensate by both maintaining more active muscle motor units and maximizing the size of individual muscle cells. So keep up those intervals and that weight work at the gym.

What about creatine? Two posts on Nutrition Facts are a nice summary of the potential for creatine supplementation in 2023. (post #1 and post #2) A few new recommendations continue to support the use of creatine as a supplement.

And this warning: "Creatine may be tainted with contaminants generated during the industrial production process so don't just buy the cheapest on the shelf. One third-party supplement testing outfit testing for impurities chose BulkSupplements brand as their top pick - which also happened to be the cheapest, at about 10 cents per daily three-gram serving, which is a level teaspoon."

I'm sticking with my last recommendation. Creatine appears to be a safe supplement with significant potential for long term benefits at a very small cost. It may diminish the loss of muscle mass with aging as well as improve performance in those athletes involved in intense aerobic as well as resistance exercise.

On the horizon - a muscle fountain of youth? Recent work summarized here suggests we may have found a path to preventing the muscle loss of aging.

Prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), one of several molecules released by muscle tissue in response to the injury and stress of training, appears to play a key role in the recruitment of reparative stem cells and re-establishing nerve/muscle cell connections.

Mice genetically engineered without a receptor for prostaglandin E2 displayed noticeably slower muscle regeneration and injured muscle treated with a single dose of PGE2 experienced accelerated repair and recovery.

As we age, the enzyme 15-hydroxyprostaglandin dehydrogenase (15-PGDH) which degrades prostaglandin E2, increases in muscle tissue, decreasing the effectiveness of PGE2. Blocking 15-PGDH in old mice largely reversed age associated loss of muscle and within a month their muscle fibers looked like those of young mice.

Part of the beneficial effect of PGE2 is via facilitating nerve muscle connections. When older mice were treated with an inhibitor of 15-PGDH (which you will remember limits the effectiveness of PGE2) there was an increase in the nerve muscle connections. The net effect of an improvement in muscle cell repair and the increase in nerve/muscle fiber connections was a 15 - 20 % increase in strength.

A decrease in muscle strength (and mass) begins in our 20s and not even rigorous training will prevent this natural process. But now we have the promise of a fountain of youth for muscles which will decrease the morbidity of sarcopenia in the elderly as well as offering athletes of all ages another tool to maximize their performance.

c) Nervous system

Reflexes will slow with age, but as with muscular strength, regular activity minimizes the extent of the slowing. Active men in their 70s were shown to have reaction times equivalent to inactive men in their 20s.

If you are worried about dementia (another disease more common with aging), regular exercise decreases the risk. This blog post from Dr. Mirkin provides details as well as references. A few excerpts:

It's never too late to take advantage of the memory benefits of aerobic training. This article documents the neurologic benefits of aerobic training, but similar benefits have been found in the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems as well. The study compared 3 groups:
  1. control group (with no intervention)
  2. exercise only group (six months of of aerobic exercise - greater than 65 percent of max heart rate, three times a week, for 45 minutes.
  3. exercise AND diet group (put on the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet).

The diet and exercise intervention group gained an 8 year advantage in memory, reasoning, and problem solving skills compared to the control (or do nothing group). The exercise only group also improved, but to a lesser degree.

d) Lung (pulmonary) function

Studies indicate that a lifetime of regular physical activity will retard the decline in pulmonary function associated with aging.

e) Cardiovascular function

Cardiac changes with age include:

f) The immune system

This study on exercise and immunity found that "..125 long-distance cyclists, some now in their 80s, .....had the immune systems of 20-year-olds."

As summarized by Dr. Mirkin "T-cells recognize foreign proteins on the surface of invading germs and cancers and engage the immune system make antibodies to attach to and kill invading germs and cancer cells. Chemicals called cytokines activate T-cells to remove germs and cancer cells from your body."

He speculates that the weakening of the aging immune system is related to a reduction in thymic activity and the production of T cells, an effect that is blunted in regular cyclists."

Aging diminishes aerobic performance.

These quotes from this web article summarize key points:

The reasons behind the decreases in performance are a combination of 2 factors:

First VO2max. "The maximal ability to utilize oxygen (VO2max) is a predictor of endurance performance across ages. In the general population, VO2max tends to decline by about 10% per decade after the age of 30." But "....competing and training (aerobic training- intervals) can reduce the drop by about half, to 5% per decade."

This graph (from The Journal of Applied Physiology) supports both the

Using the linear regression equation in the graphic, we find an average decline in VO2max of about 1.5% per year for the actively training athlete. Following is a quick calculation based on the regression equation using a 5 year span from age 75 to 80. Second, the decrease in muscle strength. "Muscles are made up of thousands of individual muscle fibers. With aging, humans lose the nerves that innervate muscle fibers (the motor unit) and with each nerve loss, lose the associated muscle fibers. For example, the vastus medialis muscle (front of your thigh) contains approximately 800,000 muscle fibers when you are 20 years old, but by age 60, it will have only about 250,000 fibers."

"You can slow the loss of muscle fibers with aging, and can enlarge the remaining muscle fibers, by regular resistance exercise, but you cannot replace fibers once they are lost. In one study, older men gained more muscle strength by spending more time (more reps) lifting lighter weights, whereas younger men gained more muscle strength by lifting heavier weights through fewer reps. In younger men, doubling exercise volume (reps x weight per rep) by spending more time lifting weights produced limited added muscle enlargement. In older men, it resulted in much larger muscles and far more strength."

Regular training, stressing the CV and muscular systems will blunt the performance effects of aging and help keep you ahead of your peers.

Use It Or Lose It....Perhaps Forever

Regular exercise has a powerful effect on many metabolic processes (beyond beefing up your VO2max and limiting the loss of muscle mass). This is especially true of insulin metabolism where a lack of exercise directly affects the tendency to obesity, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

Generally, we assume that taking some time off from aerobic activity, and the resulting impact on our metabolism is reversible when we get back to the gym or on the bike. This study suggests it's not so, especially for older adults.

So the old adage "use it or lose it" takes on a new level of significance for older adults in that once they lose it, it may be gone forever no matter what they do. So on that business trip, or family vacation, it is worth taking the time for a 30 to 60 minute daily walk or other activity that will boost your heart rate.

Original NYT article.

Aerobic Exercise Blunts the Effects of Aging

Ben Franklin once said that the only constants in this world were death and taxes. The negative effects of aging on physical performance should probably be added to the list. However numerous studies have demonstrated the dramatic effect a regular exercise program (riding three to four times a week) can have to blunt the inevitable changes.

Even though we have overwhelming data to support the longevity benefits of exercise, a recent study suggested that no more than 20% (and more likely less than 10%) of adults in the US exercise enough to have a measurable impact on their health and fitness levels.

A dedicated training program effect is so effective that the aging process may be held at bay for up to a decade or more. For any specific age grouping, regular riders are 150% less like to die from all causes than their more sedentary peers.

Why is exercise so effective in blunting the effects of aging? Here are multiple possibilities.

How Much Exercise is Enough?

If you are wondering about efficiency, getting the greatest health benefit per minute of dedicated aerobic exercise time, it appears that the sweet spot is around 150 minutes per week.

This paper reviewed a number of studies correlating "steps per day" with a positive health outcome. There was (image/graph a break point (diminishing returns/better health) as steps increased beyond 6000 - 8000 a day. To quote: "...a progressively decreasing risk of mortality among adults aged 60 years and older with increasing number of steps per day until 6000 - 8000 steps per day and among adults younger than 60 years until 8000 - 10 000 steps per day." According to the author (quoted in the NYT article): 7000 - 8000 steps a day translates to approximately 150 minutes a week.

Age Appropriate Training Intensity

Should we be focusing on the numbers (MHR, wattage) as get older?

This article is jargon heavy, but suggests using an RPE type scale (called the FS or "feeling scale") is the best intensity guide for resistance and aerobic training. A regular exercise program involves discomfort. Too much discomfort and commitment can quickly wanes. And this is more of a risk as you age.

For aerobic exercise we have the RPE scale based the perception of how hard we "feel" we are exerting. It correlates well with the objective measures of heart rate or power meter readings. And the study validated using a similar Feeling Scale (FS) (originally described as spanning -5 (I feel very bad) to +5 (I feel very good) with 0 being neutral) to self-regulate exercise intensity.

For resistance exercise, it has been suggested that we aim for an intensity (weight stress) of between 55% and 85% of our personal 1 repetition maximum (1RM). How does that translate into a FS rating for resistance exercise? Using a group of non exercisers, exerting to a level between feeling "good" (+3) to "fairly bad" (-1) matched up with resistance intensity between 55% to 85% of the 1RM.

For aerobic training, the same general relationship applies. An inensity between "good" (+3) and/or "fairly good" (+1) led to cardiovascular improvement.

This table shows the relationship between a traditional 10 point RPE scale and how you feel (although not the specific FS number scale referred to above).

Interval Training is the Ideal Anti-Aging Exercise.

If you had to pick just one exercise to blunt the effects of aging, it would be interval training. Although the level of cardiorespiratory fitness i.e. VO2max. (normally thought of as a measure of success in competitive cycling and other aerobic events) correlates with morbidity and mortality in older individuals. In fact, clinical evidence has shown cardiorespiratory fitness to be a stronger predictor of mortality than the more traditional risk factors such as smoking, hypertension, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes mellitus and the American Heart Association has suggested it be considered as a significant vital sign to be included in the traditional annual physical exam in older patients.

This graph (from) illustrates the importance of fitness (VO2max) in maintaining an independent lifestyle for an additional 10 to 15 years at the end of life. Interval training appears to be the road to the proverbial "fountain of youth".

Nutritional Needs Change As We Age

There is a tendency to gain body fat after age 30. But also sound evidence that a resistance training program will minimize the loss of muscle mass, while good eating habits and self awareness prevent the body composition "fat shift".

Protein needs of older athletes increases with age. The US Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein intake is 0.8 g/kg/day for adults. This may be on the low side for an athlete and was likely developed from nitrogen-balance studies in the "average" young adult. And it is probably too low for older adults who are less efficient in their protein digestion and absorption. It has been speculated that too little dietary protein with a resulting relative protein deficiency, may be an aggravating factor in the loss of muscle mass that accompanies aging.

Taking both aging and activity level into account, this international panel of experts recommended protein intakes of 1.0 - 1.2 g/kg/day for adults 65 years or older, with even higher intakes for those who are more physically active. So for all of us who are riding regularly - even if just with friends on the weekend - it is important to keep an eye on the protein content of our diets.

I have never been a fan of the over response of the paleo diets as the excess red meat protein comes packaged with a significant amount of undesirable fat. There are plenty of non meat sources of protein to add to your diet.

As we age there is also less latitude to skipping a pre-event carbohydrate meal along with an increased sensitivity to major fluid shifts from sweating and inadequate replacement. But aside from these two caveats and a slightly higher daily protein requirement, the general principles of nutrition are exactly the same for all age groups - including vitamin, mineral, and electrolyte replacement as well as the use of ergogenic aids such as diet supplements and unusual food products.

Anti-aging foods and supplements.

Strategies To Stay Ahead Of The Aging Curve.

Is it safe to exercise as you age? Common sense indicates the long term health benefits far outweigh any potential cardiac complications assuming one avoids the extremes - exercising above and beyond the level you have trained for, environmental extremes of temperature and humidity, and exercising when not feeling well. But even orthopedic injuries, which might be expected more commonly in the older athlete, don't appear to be more frequent with activities of moderate intensity and duration. A few thoughts:

These strategies were reinforced in a recent Outside blog article, "Age is irrelevant when it comes to fitness." Several quotes I enjoyed:

Friel believes that ... "both training volume and intensity are important to the maintenance of fitness as we age but intensity is more important." He believes the key lies in intensity - that is, consistently jacking your heart rate into the upper echelons of its potential peak. Yet intensity is typically one of the first things to vanish from your workouts, maybe even your races, when you hit middle age. That's because many athletes drift into long, slow distance (LSD), not because they are no longer capable of redlining, but because this type of training feels less taxing. But all those intervals you did in college? You never should have stopped. If anything, they become more vital as you get older."

But even if you slacked off on those intervals, just keeping to a routine which includes regular aerobic activity will pay off with huge anti-aging dividends. How big? This recently published study provides some insight.

My take aways? Training strategies as you age should include:
  1. reducing training volumes (number of rides a week). As you age you need more rest to recover from the minor physiologic traumas of hard physical activity. And if you are more rested, you can then push yourself harder during interval training. So the first challenge for those of us who have been used to pushing ourselves for years is decreasing the number of hours (or days) a week on the bike.
  2. Make aerobic activity part of your lifestyle. Five days a week. A solid hour.
  3. Add intervals (or a period of aerobic stress) several days a week.
  4. Supplement your aerobic program with resistance training (lifting weights) and increased dietary protein.

Reader's Questions

Q. I am 70 years old and increasingly find that aches and pains of old age are affecting my cycling. My speed is dropping because I have to use lower gears but I cannot turn the pedals as fast as I used too due to increasing stiffness and/or sore knees. The worst effect of old age is the loss of power. ... I increasingly get dropped on the hills, and I live in a hilly area. But again too much hill climbing and the knees suffer! So more rest and recuperation is needed, which cuts down on training time. So some advice on juggling the variables to improve, or at least retain, my hill climbing ability. DD

A.If you don't stress the CV system, you will lose aerobic capacity over time. But you can minimize that loss by regular riding - and by pushing yourself. I would consider doing intervals once or twice a week as one part of a program (if you are not now). And that means getting your heart rate up into Zone 4 for you. As to the knees, make sure you have a good fit on the bike, pedals (if you have clips) with good play (like frogs/speedplay), and then keep that RPM between 90 and 100. Don't lug on the hills, or spin too fast - it plays havoc with the knees.

Q. I am 69 years old, female. I ride about 130 miles a week and am working on interval training and sprinting to get stronger and faster. I ride a minimum of 20 miles a day. I have osteoarthritis in my back and hands. I don't take anything for the osteoarthritis and find that cycling is my key to living with OA and hopefully preventing it from getting worse. Today, I did 4 intervals of 1/2 mile. From a dead start, I was able to ride 18.8 on the 2nd interval and 18.7 on the 4th. My goal is to ride the 5K and 10K in the Senior Games in October at 18 mph. On a dead start, I can sprint up to 23 mph in the first few seconds, but it poops me out quicker and I ride slower, on the 1/2 mile interval, i.e., 17.7. My question involves maximum heart rate. I have noticed that my heart rate number is going higher, before I get exhausted, than a couple of months ago.

A.This question suggested that you may have fallen into a deadly trap in training, the "if a little is good, a lot is better" approach. It is really important to warm up before you do the intervals. If you are not doing so (5 miles or so at a modest pace) you risk injury and, as the CV system is not yet into its rhythm, you won't get maximum benefit from the intervals before feeling fatigued.

I don't see any advantage to a 23 MPH sprint for a few seconds - the whole interval should be at a steady pace you pick. If you can't hold 23 for the full interval, either decrease the interval duration or the speed.

It is really important to take off a few days a week off the bike. I'm not sure what to say about "your MHR going higher" but it is possible this is a sign of overtraining, not ideal training.

And finally, I did get the following question which raises a point I'd like to reemphasize:

Q.It seems your website is mostly designed for much stronger riders than I. Perhaps, you will see the benefit of gearing part of it to someone on my level, although there is a really small percentage of women my age, who have the drive to "push their limits." Presently, I know only one other female with that drive.

A.As to age, if you key your training to your personal max heart rate (less as you age) the general approach to a training program (how you divide up the rides during a week)should be age independent.

All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.

Cycling Performance Tips
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