Athletes slow the effects of aging

The effects of aging are easy to see and we are reminded every day by grey hair, wrinkles and slower movements.

The effects of aging are easy to see and we are reminded every day by grey hair, wrinkles and slower movements.

But under the surface there are, of course, the same process occurring out of sight – and sometimes out of mind.

Sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking we are not getting older because we can’t see all of the progressive changes happening inside our bodies, but they are happening.

In fact, hypertension is often called ‘the silent killer’ because we can’t see its effects or feel any symptoms.

How fast is this deterioration happening and is there anything we can do to slow this process down?

After the age of 35-40, the mass of our muscles declines and this process becomes more accelerated after 60 years.

The size of muscles decreases by one or two per cent per year after your 30s and strength decreases by nine per cent per decade after that, the lower limbs suffering a greater loss than the upper body.

This, along with slower nervous system responses like cognition and balance, make falling more likely in advanced ages.

Fracturing bones from falls is also more likely because of declining bone mineral density, which decreases by 0.5 per cent per year after our mid-20s.

For post-menopausal women, bone loss is greater at two to three per cent a year.

The decrease in bone mass in the spine is a factor in the loss of standing height, but there is as much contribution from the loss of disc thickness.

As we age, the ability for the intervertebral discs to absorb and retain water is lost, so the thickness decreases and we shrink about one centimetre per decade until about 60 years, when the rate of loss increases – a greater loss for women than men.

Add to this the fact that as bone loss progresses, a forward curve in the spine is produced and this also contributes to a loss of height.

The joints in the body all lose about 20-30 per cent of their flexibility as the elasticity of muscle and tendon decreases.

Body fat increases, as well, with a higher proportion occurring in the visceral (around the internal organs) region.

Visceral fat accumulation is a higher risk for health problems.

Finally, among the myriad of other changes in the body, the cardiovascular system function declines at the rate of nine per cent per decade past the age of 30 due to, among many reasons, a decrease in cardiac output, stiffening of blood vessels, accumulation of deposits on vessel walls and loss of alveoli in the lungs, which makes oxygen delivery to the tissues slower and less efficient.

Having heard all the bad news, there are positive figures.

These stats are standard, general rates of decline, and considering most people don’t exercise regularly, especially in our later years, don’t reflect the helpful effects of exercise on attenuating the rates of decline.

If you were to plot these rates of decline on a graph you would see a curved drop in function , called a hyperbolic curve.

In other words, the rate would be gradual at first, then accelerate as we pass the age of 60.

It would be a faster decline each year thereafter.

But if you look at studies of aging adults and ‘masters’ athletes who consistently perform strengthening, cardiovascular and flexibility exercise, the rate of decline changes from an accelerating hyperbolic curve to a straight line and the speed of decline reduces as the slope of the graph becomes less steep.

The younger you begin to exercise regularly, the less steep the decline is as well.

But no matter what age you start to exercise, you can positively reduce these effects of aging.

Exercise, along with proper nutrition, moderation with alcohol use and a reduction, or better yet, elimination of smoking will help achieve a longer life.

The result is better function, better quality of life, more enjoyment in later years and less impact on the health-care system.

Kerry Senchyna is a provincially registered kinesiologist.