We’re not 25 anymore, physically (duh). But 40++ guys (and gals) can feel pretty darn good if they’re physically active, eat well, get enough sleep and manage stress. And perform pretty well too – in endurance events, strength activities, skill sports and daily life.
Consider these recent news items. A 52-year-old guy set the world record for most push-ups in an hour. At the USA Track & Field masters’ championships, women in their 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 80’s, 90’s and 100′s turned in “age-defying” performances.
The glass-half-empty views says 40+ means “over the hill.” But the quest to live in glass-half-full mode raises these questions:
- What’s the nature of this “hill?” Is there one crest, or different ones for different things?
- When do these crests come along?
- How steep is our slope post-crest?
I’ve researched this a bit, and here are my conclusions so far. Yeah, our “VO2max” aerobic capacity is lower, and we have less fast-twitch muscle fiber for explosive things like sprinting and jumping. But there are also several pieces of good news from research, brothers.
Read on for a summary of good-news points and links to research sources. Plus, some amazing data on how today’s OlderBeast-age guys would have done at the first modern Olympics in 1896.
1. ENDURANCE FACTORS OTHER THAN VO2max DON’T DECLINE STEEPLY
While VO2max (maximum aerobic capacity) declines, the other two drivers of endurance don’t decline much, or particularly quickly. These are:
- Exercise Economy: Ability of our muscles to efficiently use the oxygen that the heart/lungs deliver to them.
- Lactate Threshold: Ability to sustain a high percentage of maximum aerobic capacity without build-up of lactic acid. There’s actually some evidence that aging improves Lactate Threshold.
It’s true, we don’t see 40+ guys competing in freakishly-VO2max-intensive activities like the Tour de France or the Cross-Country skiing world championships. But look at “normal” endurance things (like non-elite running races). You’ll see guys of OlderBeast age reasonably competitive with all but a few of the fastest 20- and 30-somethings.
The sustainability of Exercise Economy, and maybe even improvement in Lactate Threshold, are big reasons why.
2. GREATER IMPACT OF “DE-TRAINING” — BUT THIS IS ***AVOIDABLE***
Beyond 40 (beyond the early 30’s, even), what scientists call “de-training” has a greater negative impact. That is, as people get older they suffer worse and more long-lasting effects from interruptions to effective physical exercise routines.
The implication? Don’t let de-training grab hold of you, man!
De-training can happen due to time-constraints of work and family, because of injuries, and from slipping motivation. The motivation factor is particularly dangerous in concert with aging, because it can become a self-limiting, but also self-reinforcing belief that goes like this:
“I’m getting old…so I don’t exercise as much or as intensely…and lo-and-behold, I don’t feel as good as I used to…so that shows I’m getting old…etc.”
Time constraints are tough but shouldn’t ultimately be fatal, and we are more susceptible to certain injuries as we age, no doubt. But if we’re smart, persistent and guided by fitness as a top priority, we can avoid or work around these things that cause de-training to set in for many people.
One example of “smart,” among many: muscle imbalance often develops slowly over time, and is a leading cause of injury. By smartly pursuing a complementary variety of exercise, and focusing on weak spots, we can reduce the negative impact of muscle imbalance.
With our modern understanding of fitness and a consumer economy geared to support it, never before has it been so possible to eat well, access a healthy variety of physical activities, and get help when you’re injured. That is, we can avoid the typical impact of de-training that has hit most people even half-a-generation ago.
The accelerating pattern of “age-defying” physical performances is evidence of this. There’s even some suggestion by researchers that VO2max declines seem to be less than historically observed!
3. MOST OF US DIDN’T ACHIEVE THE ‘FULL-POTENTIAL’ WE HAD AT AGE 25-30
Many studies of things like VO2max and explosive muscle power look at performance of elite athletes and how their capacities tail off with age. They compare, across age groups, guys that are as trained-up as they can be, eating single-mindedly, and generally achieving nearly 100% of what their physiology will allow at that age.
But what if you weren’t living that way in your late 20’s and early 30’s? (Most us weren’t – I sure wasn’t).
In that case, you didn’t really get up to the “crest” you theoretically could have. That’s bad news for the younger you, but great news for the today-and-tomorrow you, man. While you’ve undoubtedly tailed off some from what your crest would have been…if you’re strongly focused on fitness and nutrition now, your actual current fitness level can be much closer to, or even above, that actual level from decades ago.
PUTTING THESE FACTORS TOGETHER
- While VO2max decline is real, other important endurance factors don’t tail off very steeply. Thinking of ourselves in automotive terms, our maximum horsepower is a bit lower, but our transmissions to translate power to motion are still in near-original shape. And we might even be better for sustained semi-fast drives – without overheating – than we used to be.
- De-training hits older guys harder than younger ones, and explains some portion of age-related “decline.” The adage “use it or lose it” comes to mind. But we don’t have to accept de-training as a condition of aging, man. We don’t have to stop “using it.”
- In theory, how we compare to our prior selves shouldn’t matter. What counts is today and tomorrow. But if you can’t help but think in a comparative way…remember that most of us weren’t firing on all physical cylinders back then. We didn’t “peak at our peak.” So we can achieve a higher proportion of our potential now.
These facts, taken together, convince me we can reasonably adopt as a guiding belief: “aging is a state of mind.” I’m not advocating total denial of aging, dude. Just urging all of us to keep this positive view, too.
To paraphrase Henry Ford: “The man who thinks he’s over the hill, and the man who thinks he’s not, are both right.”
Final cool perspective. If you could transport today’s master’s track record-holders back in time, look at the ages of guys who would have gold-medaled back then:
- 100-meter dash: today’s 60+ record, set by a 61-year-old, would be gold-medal time back then
- 1500-meter race (“metric mile”): current record set by a 60-year-old would have been winning time
- Marathon: current record held by a 73-year-old would have won back then!
- Endurance Exercise Performance in Masters Athletes: Age-associated Changes and Underlying Physiological Mechanisms (from The Physiology Journal – a highly-detailed and referenced recap of multiple other studies)
- An Athlete’s Age May Be Less Important to Performance Than Persistent Practice (very recent and enthusiasm-inspiring article from The Denver Post
- Over the Hill: Have You Passed Peak Performance? (Fitness vs. Father Time — Your Action Plan) – from Greatist
- How Age Affects Your Performance (in-depth consideration of the topic by Training Peaks)
“Truckin’, I’m a goin’ home. Whoa whoa baby, back where I belong. Back home, sit down and patch my bones, and get back truckin’ on.” (Grateful Dead, Truckin’ – click to listen)
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