Research surrounding the impact of exercise on cellular aging continues to demonstrate profound results.
In early 2010, TJ LaRocca from the Department of Integrative Physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder released the results of a study that clearly showed that “the fitter a person was in middle age or onward, the younger their cells.”
Specifically, he compared the length of cell telomeres (tiny caps on the end of DNA strands, the length of which have been shown to be a reliable marker of cell age) of young athletes and aging athletes (distance runners) with those of their sedentary peers. LaRocca’s work showed not only that the aging athletes had longer telomere length than their sedentary counterparts, but also that higher VO2max correlated closely with longer telomeres.
Similarly, the New York Times recently reported on new research by Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of pediatrics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, that showed that “exercise reduced or eliminated almost every detrimental effect of aging in mice that had been genetically programmed to grow old at an accelerated pace.”
Among mice that had been genetically altered to age prematurely, those that were allowed to exercise three times per week at a strenuous aerobic pace (the functional equivalent of a 10K road race) had significantly more mitochondria and fewer negative mitochondrial mutations than their non-exercising peers, which died within one year of “natural causes.” The exercising mice also showed few signs that their ovaries or testicles had shrunk, demonstrating that healthy levels of estrogen and testosterone circulated in the exercising mice.
All of this brings us back to the conversation between endurance sports coach, Joe Friel, sports medicine specialist, Dr. Thomas Murray, and this author regarding the cycling performance and the aging athlete. As discussed, research has shown that beginning at age 35, V02max in begins to decline at quite an alarming rate – unless of course the subject is a cyclist who continues to engage in intense exercise. Declines in V02max among aging athletes engaging in intense exercise have been shown to slow or even improve V02max.
Joe Friel, an athlete in his sixties, is case in point. During a recent 30-minute power test, this aging athlete put out an average of 259 watts. This is an impressive rate of power output, even for a man 2/3 of his age. Maybe it’s as simple as Joe puts it, “You are old when age becomes your excuse.” Or maybe, keeping your workouts intense actually retards the aging process keeping the aging cyclist competitive, young at heart and young at the cellular level.
So, it is with mice, men, the aging athlete and cycling performance – keep it intense my friends.