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Will Elite Running Help You Age Like an Olympian?

A new study raises interesting questions regarding the role fitness plays in the aging process. The study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, followed a group of elite runners in America for 45 years. There’s no guarantee that being a runner will make you fit and healthy in old age, but the study suggests that it does indeed help.

Although everyone understands the concept of aging-with each new year, we get another year older, there are still things about aging that are not as clear. Scientists remain uncertain about how and why our bodies change as we age and to what extent such changes are inevitable or mutable. In other words, we don’t know whether aging as most of us now experience it is normal for the human species or not, according to The New York Times.

The study began nearly 50 years ago, before the 1968 Summer Olympics track and field trials in the U.S. Dr. Jack Daniels, an exercise psychologist and running coach, started working with the runners expected to do the best in the trials and 26 athletes were tested extensively. Dr. Daniels tested VO2 max, aerobic capacity and other measures of health. The runners found to be in exceptional shape were all in their early to mid-20s.

The same athletes were brought back in by Dr. Daniels 25 years later, in 1993. He tested each of the athletes again in a human performance lab but then left the data unpublished. Sarah Everman, a colleague of Dr. Daniels, was intrigued by the data when she first learned about it in 2012. She suggested the idea that they bring the athletes back into the performance lab again.

Twenty-two of the men agreed to be tested again, all in their late 60s and early 70s at the time. The tests showed that their 2013 VO2 max numbers still placed them in the top 10 percent or so of older American men.

Dr. Everman said, “Such data suggest that squirreling away fitness when we are young with sustained, frequent exercise might help to blunt some of the losses later. But the broader message of the study, could be that we may need to rethink what normal fitness is or should be in older people.”

She continued, “If the rest of us followed a similar workout trajectory during our lives, we might wind up with a higher VO2 max than otherwise in our old age, resetting both our expectations about age-related fitness and the existing tables.”

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