The Olympics are arguably the grandest sporting event to take place. 11,551 athletes from 207 different nations competed in 306 events in 28 sports. What we have seen in Rio 2016 is a age diverse group of athletes competing to be the world’s best. The really interesting part of all this is that it can show us that age can become just a number rather than a limiting factor. Ie: You are only as old as you think and act.
Let’s look at the numbers:
Oldest Olympian in Rio: Mary Hanna, 61yo equestrian (Australia)
Oldest Gold Medallist @ Rio: Kristin Armstrong 43yo (U.S. cyclist)
Oldest Gymnast in Rio: Oksana Chusovitina 41yo (Uzbekistan)
Oldest track and Field Athlete: Jo Pavey 42yo 10,000-meter running (Great Britain)
Now I am fully aware that not everyone wants to complete the copious hours of grueling training to become an Olympian. Some could not think of anything worse than even playing a sport, but what it shows you is that your life is not over once you hit that certain age that you deem “as being old.”
“How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you actually were?”
Physiologically it is understood that the body changes with each passing day, with the rate of regeneration decreasing as well as general degeneration of vital pieces of our bodies. Our V02max (which is numerical value that describes how much oxygen your body can use per kilogram of body weight) decreases as we age. One of the reasons for this is that for everyone (fit or unfit) our maximal heart rates decrease as we age. This reduces the output from the heart each beat and also the delivery of oxygen to the working muscles. This can lower general performance and endurance.
So, how are these older individual’s still competing against the world’s best and winning?
Training is the answer.
In the general population (on average) our V02max declines by approximately 10% per decade after we hit 30 years of age. Individuals who train in higher
intensities can reduce that drop to 5% per decade. That is 50% more oxygen moving around their body in comparison to someone who sits in an office all day.
The typical rate of decline in muscle mass in the general population is quite similar to aerobic changes. Research has estimated that from 40 years of age, muscle mass decreases 8% a decade until we hit around 70 years of age after which losses increase to about 15% a decade. However strength training can minimise that loss. The cross section on thighs of a younger athlete, an older athlete and an inactive (sedentary) individual highlights that muscle mass can be maintained if trained.
The one thing that is highly noticeable is the domino effect of decreased muscle mass and strength. The loss of strength and muscle tissue lead to reduced mobility, followed by a decreased basal metabolic rate, increased body fat percentage, decreased metabolic enzymes, decreased insulin sensitivity, and finally a decrease in bone mineral density.
Whilst a majority of us over 30 are not trying to gain selection in an Olympic team, training like athletes can have us feeling better, more mobile, lighter, and most importantly not “too old”