Thursday, February 7, 2008

Slow Down Aging by Staying Active

If you want to live forever, take up running.

Okay, that's my personal take on it. However, ask Vonda Wright, an orthopedist at the University of Pittsburgh, and she will tell you the same thing. Almost.

According to Wright's recent study, those who continue with or even take up athletics in their later years slow down deterioration that appears to be the hallmark of aging: loss of balance and bone density, slowing movements, loss of flexibility and more .... or less.

Most importantly, it's not just the lifelong athletes who benefit from this. Indeed, those who take up sports later in life — middle age or later — show signs of benefit.

And don't say an old dog can't learn new tricks: many older athletes are training harder and performing better than their younger counterparts, according to "Staying a Step Ahead of Aging" (New York Times, 1/31/2008).

Now that doesn't mean you dash out and play daredevil soccer with your local cutthroat teen team, of course. Train smart, train safely — and start out with a full physical before taking up the hurdle or lance. That's just common sense for any age athlete.

Many athletes train to the pain. I'm of two minds. I've been running nearly non-stop since I was 13 (and boy, are my arms tired! er...). I've tried the whole pain thing. In fact, I'm trying it right now: I've begun running again after a month on a stairclimber (due to cold weather and illness). I work out hard on the machine, sweating buckets and making my muscles tremble.

And yet, there's nothing quite the same as propelling myself down the street with no handles to balance against when I am weary. (I didn't cheat by draping myself all over the machine, but I might have relied on balance aids from time to time.) Work to the pain? No, thank you. I'll work hard and push myself, but not to where my muscles are begging to crawl off my body and be folded with my pajamas. I'll do interval and weight training, I'll mix up my workouts, I'll change distances and terrain, but I don't want to hurt like this again.

And yet I am in awe of retirees who run faster (and train harder) than I do. A 74-year-old man ran a marathon in less than three hours. Yes, my retired elders have more time to train and work out than I do. Yes, they have muscle memory that makes me look like a young'n. They also have the good sense to work with a personal trainer and listen to their doctors. (Maybe with age comes wisdom.)

This youthful vigor may not last forever. In time, we all slow down to a certain extent. Reduced lung capacity and reduced blood flow to extremities will happen, no matter how strong the ticker is. In the end, our bodies age, and our performance will change.

We just don't have to go willingly into doterage. We can stay healthy and fit, active and flexible — and feel better — for longer. As our longevity continues to increase, I am glad to see this trend, and I hope to continue it as I join the ranks of the older athletes.

- Chris

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