His research shows elderly people who were elite athletes in their youth or later in life — and who still compete as masters athletes — have much healthier muscles at the cellular level compared to those of non-athletes.
The study, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, compared world-class track and field athletes in their 80s with people of the same age who are living independently. There have been few such studies of aging and muscle weakening in masters athletes in this age group.
“One of the most unique and novel aspects of this study is the exceptional participants,” says Power, Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences. “These are individuals in their 80s and 90s who actively compete in world masters track and field championships. We have seven world champions. These individuals are the crème de la crème of aging.”
The study found that athletes’ legs were 25 per cent stronger on average and had about 14 per cent more total muscle mass.
In addition, the athletes had nearly one-third more motor units in their leg muscles than non-athletes. More motor units, consisting of nerve and muscle fibres, mean more muscle mass and subsequently greater strength.
With normal aging, the nervous system loses motor neurons, leading to a loss of motor units, reduced muscle mass, and less strength, speed and power. That process speeds up substantially past age 60.
“Exercise is definitely an important contributor to functional performance,” he says, adding that even non-athletes can benefit. “Staying active, even later in life, can help reduce muscle loss.”
But, he adds, “we cannot rule out the importance of genetics.” He said further research is needed to determine whether muscle health in elite athletes comes from training or genes.