Home > Uncategorized > The incredible unaging triathlete

The incredible unaging triathlete

January 14th, 2012

Here’s a pretty graphic illustration, from a recent paper by Dr. Vonda Wright and her colleagues (hat tip to Laura McIntyre for the forward), of the importance of lifelong physical activity:

It’s from a new study freely available at The Physician and Sportsmedicine that took detailed measurements of 40 masters athletes between the ages of 40 and 81, and found a surprising lack of age-related muscle loss:

This study contradicts the common observation that muscle mass and strength decline as a function of aging alone. Instead, these declines may signal the effect of chronic disuse rather than muscle aging.



  1. January 14th, 2012 at 15:01 | #1

    And check out the bone density difference too. Amazing.

  2. January 14th, 2012 at 15:21 | #2

    I am definitely going to show some of my patients those visuals to help get them active- saying your muscles are going to atrophy is just not as convincing!

    But, I find that final section you quoted a little hard to believe. From everything I have read, muscle wasting undoubtedly occurs with the aging muscle at a rate it would not occur at in a younger person (not simply relating to disuse).

    There is evidence of this everywhere from a hormonal standpoint (i.e. drops in T and GH with aging) all the way to functional evidence such as here:

    I’m pretty sure you blogged about that study before. But with older athletes (who are very active) benefiting more from weight training than younger athletes, this pretty clearly shows that age related atrophy and not disuse is at play.

    What do you think? I preach to middle aged athletes the importance of weight training all the time, I would hate to be wrong! haha

  3. January 14th, 2012 at 17:34 | #3

    One more reason why I’m glad I exercise. Those photos make a statement.

  4. January 15th, 2012 at 03:05 | #4

    Masters and Senior Games will rule. This is great motivation for folks.

  5. Lenny
    January 15th, 2012 at 04:03 | #5

    Sigh. I know I need to weight train, but it is so boring. I have taken Kettlebell, but it exacerbated an old herniated disc that for years had not bothered me. I realize that I need to add weight training to my swimming, biking and running, but where to find the time?! Also, my chiro said that yoga is the best exercise for us aging athletes. There’s just not enough time, not to mention that we need more recovery time as we age.

  6. GMK
    January 15th, 2012 at 17:37 | #6

    Lenny – how challenged do you feel during your weight training? of course it’s going to be boring if you don’t break a sweat.

    kettlebell training will most certainly aggravate your disc, especially if you are new to weight training – think about it, you’re whipping around a weight at the end of your arms in all sorts of fashion, unless your form is immaculate, you will be exposed to higher risk of injury.

    If you’re serious, try compound barbell lifts – squat, standing press, deadlift, etc. Google “starting strength” for more info. I assure you, with a little progress into the program it’ll be anything but boring.

  7. Linda
    January 15th, 2012 at 19:22 | #7

    I am curious if the samples used had similar body types, without similar exercise history. We all know you use it or lose it. But I wonder. I recently, at 55, gave up running and switched to hot yoga, and find that I am getting one of the best workouts I’ve had in years, and regaining the flexibility I lost running. I hope that it will show when I am 70!

  8. Steve
    January 15th, 2012 at 23:46 | #8

    Yes, there is undoubtedly a relation between exercise and health, but in one aspect I must question the findings of this study: It concludes that people are healthier because they exercise, but does it consider the possibility that they exercise because they are healthier?

    Specifically, this study was only conducted on specimens who would “prove” the theory, those who are masters athletes. Perhaps the older of these subjects continues their chronic exercise due to some other genetic advantage. It neglects to consider seniors who exercise but are not masters athletes.

    Therefore, while the study observed that those who maintained healthy bodies also performed chronic exercise, it doesn’t prove that the latter alone was the cause of the former, or that those who engage in such activities will obtain the same results.

  9. RH
    January 16th, 2012 at 08:05 | #9

    Though the message is perfectly clear, I was wondering, are the scans on the same scale?
    The bones in the sedentary man seems awfully thin. As I understand it, aging, osteoporosis affects bone density rather than diameter.
    Besides, they are closer to each other, which suggests that they are scaled to fit the same cadre as the other scans.

  10. January 16th, 2012 at 18:33 | #10

    You’ll find your ability to add intensity will improve over time. Just get in there and start! @Lenny

  11. alex
    January 16th, 2012 at 18:36 | #11

    Thanks for the comments, folks. Two quick points:

    (1) While the images are striking, I’d look primarily at the qualitative rather than quantitative differences between them. As @RH points out, the scale isn’t necessarily identical, so we shouldn’t be, say, measuring bone diameter here.

    (2) These are illustrative pictures from three samples, not “proof” that aging is a figment of our imagination. Not every old athlete looks this great, and not every sedentary person looks this bad. What’s more significant is the collective results from this study, and how little average lean mass decreased between 40 and 70 among the masters athletes studied.

    Again, these results shouldn’t really come as a surprise. But sometimes being reminded — graphically — of something that we already know can be helpful. Personally, I went to the weight room yesterday for the first time in far too long!

  12. January 16th, 2012 at 20:26 | #12

    Thanks very much for posting the images and article link! This is a really powerful image comparison despite the quantitative discrepancies. I need to print it out and bring it to clinic to show every single patient I see! I find it very unsurprising to see such striking differences based on my research and patient population. I only see the active elderly for rehab after a sports related injury–and they are usually in better shape than I am!

    Quick comment for Sean–several other studies have been done that do demonstrate definitive preservation of function with excellent aerobic capacity and lack of sarcopenia in the athletic elderly–this one is just particularly nice thanks to the beautiful images presented. Many of my colleagues, myself included, firmly believe that “the natural state of aging” does not exist as characterized by our current medical premise. Instead, we believe that the loss of muscle and function can be attributed to “lifestyle-based” disease as opposed to age-related cellular decline.

    On a personal anecdotal note, my 91 year old grandmother is a prime example of how active elderly, not just Master’s athlete levels, can really preserve their function & muscle strength/mass. She walks 3 miles every day and has done so since her early 60′s. She was never an athlete as an adult. She fractured her hip when she fell off a high curb after getting tangled in several dog leashes that pulled her over. Basically an accident any one of us could have. She was up standing (with pain) within 24 hours of the surgical repair of her fracture (which was complete). She then spent 10 days at acute inpatient rehab hospital, working 3+ hours a day in PT/OT and was able to return home completely independently without any need for in-home nursing care. I’ve seen patients 50 years younger than her completely unable to do that! A month and a half later, she’s now back to doing her walking using a cane until the fracture fully heals!

    Thanks again for the inspiration–time to practice what I preach and hit the weights (& aerobic weight-bearing exercise for that matter)!

  13. Carson
    January 16th, 2012 at 22:32 | #13

    @Lenny @Lenny – Get rid of your TV. You’ll be amazed.

  14. Paul
    January 17th, 2012 at 02:49 | #14

    Yes, but where is the control picture of the sedentary man at age 40?

  15. alex
    January 17th, 2012 at 02:55 | #15


    “(2) These are illustrative pictures from three samples, not “proof” that aging is a figment of our imagination. Not every old athlete looks this great, and not every sedentary person looks this bad. What’s more significant is the collective results from this study, and how little average lean mass decreased between 40 and 70 among the masters athletes studied.”

  16. January 18th, 2012 at 04:25 | #16

    Not surprised any one bit. Working with older patients who look great I always ask them what there secret is. 99.99% of the time their response is “staying active”.

    Thomas Gerlach
    Professional Triathlete

    Save 10% at Trisports.com with Coupon Code “TGER-S”

  17. January 18th, 2012 at 19:19 | #17

    As a former radiologist turned preventive and performance medicine physician, I can confirm that the implications of these images accurately reflect reality. Chronological aging does not cause sacropenia, osteopenia, or any other degenerative disease. Chronic lifestyle and environmental factors are the confounding variables which generate the age association of these diseases. Genetics remain a minor influence. It’s the genetic expression (“epigenetic”) which matters, and this is influenced by environmental interactions (lifestyle). I’ve seen many 40 year old sedentary men MRI’s which look just like the 74 year old sedentary man here. What’s more important, I’ve seen endless cases now of older individuals reversing these disorders, including “age-related hormone decline”, through comprehensive lifestyle optimization.

    Nathan Daley, MD, MPH

  18. cheryl
    January 20th, 2012 at 00:32 | #18

    I am the only almost 60 year old in my gym…female. What the hell? I LOVE lifting! And running, and cycling and swimming and yoga. Thanks for this info. Makes me feel good about what I am doing even more!

  19. cheryl
    January 20th, 2012 at 00:35 | #19

    MAKE time…or don’t. I am 58- teach, have a family, yard, garden and pets. And a husband. I get up at four or five each morning to get it in. You can do it if you want it bad enough! :-)

  20. Dr. Jay
    January 20th, 2012 at 00:38 | #20

    @Sean: The age related changes in GH and T do mean that it is more difficult to build and maintain muscle mass as we age. But if you enter your later years with reasonable muscle bulk, you can nearly keep your hard hear earned athletic body through your early to mid 70′s. Beyond that, bulk loss is much more likely. The key to these images is that the 70 year old entered his old age with that body. To start at 70 with an atrophied body and move toward that fit, muscular slide would be very difficult.

  21. January 21st, 2012 at 22:56 | #21

    Thanks for posting my study and generally such great discussion! We are thrilled and it makes several years of hard work even more worth it. My passion is changing the way we age in this country from perception to real data such as these!

    I believe what is commonly known about “aging” is only what we known about SEDENTARY aging and NOT what we are truly capable of, from a musculoskeletal standpoint, with active aging.

    This is actually the 4th in a series of studies we have published in this population which I will send you the links to. In short, we found that “biology takes over” in terms of performance decline in the 7th decade. This supports Tanaka and Seals’ data in swimming. Also, we found we are capable of maintaining bone density with chronic impact exercise, or “bone bashing” as I like to call .

    I agree with you two observations about the study.

    Thanks again.


  22. January 22nd, 2012 at 19:23 | #22

    @Dr. Cat, The Happy Rehab Doc
    I have no doubt that staying active will have a tremendous impact on maintaining muscle mass regardless of age (that’s why I tell people to do it). But, are you saying it is just as easy to maintain strength in your 70′s as it is in your 20′s? Keep in mind there is a significant difference between improving strength with exercise in your 70′s, and improving strength with exercise in your 70′s at the same rate as when you were 20.

    If it is all related to, as you say, a “lifestyle based disease,” then why do we not see people in their 70′s (or even in their 40′s) winning the 100m dash? Are you suggesting they just not training as hard as those in their 20′s?

    @Dr. Jay
    Having more muscle “in the bank” is ideal, that I agree with. I’m pretty sure you and I are on the same page…unless you are suggesting that a 70 year old can maintain the same strength he had in his 20′s with the same amount of effort?

  23. T Merrick
    January 22nd, 2012 at 21:36 | #23

    Not to slam yoga, but I doubt that your chiropractor has first-hand experience with yoga. As a fitness professional myself, I know that yoga is not as easy or appropriate for everyone as health care providers commonly believe.

  24. Kent
    January 22nd, 2012 at 21:49 | #24

    There is little doubt that seniors who lift heavy things and put stress on their muscles and bones will maintain much higher levels of muscle and bone density than their sedentary counterparts, regardless of their age.

    I think it would be interesting, however, to see what the quadriceps of a sedentary 40-year-old look like. I bet it’s not a pretty picture.

  25. January 23rd, 2012 at 02:51 | #25

    This is INCREDIBLE. Thank you for sharing!!

  26. Martin
    January 23rd, 2012 at 21:52 | #26

    The picture clearly shows that no matter how much you exercise, scientists will find a way to catch you and cut your legs into thin slices!

  27. alex
    January 23rd, 2012 at 22:40 | #27

    @Martin: That’s why training for running is so crucial: you can outrun the scientists for a little longer…

  28. Martin
    January 23rd, 2012 at 23:27 | #28

    Not sure about that, the sedentary man managed to outlive the others…

  29. Brian Hammond
    January 24th, 2012 at 17:59 | #29

    I don’t find this surprising. A few years ago while attending a Masters event I had my bone density tested. I was told that I had the density of a 23yr old weight lifter, not bad for a 42yr old cyclist!!!

  30. Lucy Duffy
    January 24th, 2012 at 22:35 | #30

    Not sure about my muscles but I am strong for my age, lift weights, train swim/bike/run, do sprint triathlons (slowly) and do yoga twice a week. I had a mastectomy and radiation last Dec. and am on arimadex, an estrogen suppressing medicine which can cause bone loss. I just had a bone density test and it came out normal and amazed the doctor. I have been an athlete since my late 40′s, a marathoner and then at age 72 began doing triathlons. I did the 100 mile Lake Tahoe ride in the cold rain last June and then summer triathlons. I say all this, not to brag, but to enforce what I believe is the reason for my quick recovery and tremendous sense of well being no matter what. I am facing some minor surgery, not cancer related, but am confident that I will get back in shape and have signed up for the Pan MASS Challenge, the Burlington Nationals and other events. The advantage of being so old is that though I am very slow I can place and it is such fun to be among all these great younger athletes.

  31. Lucy Duffy
    January 24th, 2012 at 22:37 | #31

    I submitted a long comment. What happened to it.

  32. alex
    January 24th, 2012 at 23:06 | #32

    @Lucy: Thanks very much for your comment — very inspirational! I have to review each comment individually before it’s posted, so something there’s a delay before I see and approve new comments.

  33. Lucy Duffy
    January 27th, 2012 at 02:57 | #33

    Thanks for including my comment. I neglected to say that I will be 79 on February 9th. My friend and mentor Andy Schurding keeps me going. He said once , “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a tri when you are 80 so i think I’ll keep moving.

  34. Perry Dedes
    January 29th, 2012 at 00:11 | #34

    Thank you all for a very interesting information and comments. I am sure that many would agree that the “move or lose it” truism message is supported to some degree here. What is left is the motivation to do so.
    That’s where the big or holistic picture of the individuals social and physical environment comes into play. There in lies the Public Health challenge.

  35. February 1st, 2012 at 07:52 | #35

    Wow…….if this is a true reflection of “if you don’t use it – you lose it” the advice I’ve been giving my customers for years……here’s proof…..thank for posting…will print off and frame me thinks!!

  36. February 10th, 2012 at 10:10 | #36

    Well I was told over 30 years ago, when I worked in my first gym “muscles don’t age” and it appears it’s true!

  37. Steevo
    February 18th, 2012 at 14:09 | #37

    research also has shown that bone density is increased with weight training,among 50-70 year olds on a weight training program they increased muscle and bone density as well as improving their balance.

  38. Steve
    February 19th, 2012 at 17:26 | #38

    Great, now I’ve got this curious craving for a ham steak.

  39. Alan
    April 1st, 2012 at 02:24 | #39

    Congratulations on fantastic site and articles,muscle mass retention relates directly to resistance or weight shifted consistently.I am sixty regularly work out 5or 6 times a week and shift a total of 10,000KG per work out not to particular about routines just mix it around have followed this way of exercise for years now , I think I am holding on to muscle mass. in my opinion only, follow paleo style of eating strictly ,never felt better no pills of any kind .

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