Regular exercise throughout adulthood may protect our muscles against age-related loss and damage later, according to an interesting new study of lifelong athletes and their thighs. The study finds that active older men’s muscles resemble, at a cellular level, those of 25-year-olds and weather inflammatory damage much better than the muscles of sedentary older people.
The study also raises some cautionary questions about whether waiting until middle age or later to start exercising might prove to be challenging for the lifelong health of our muscles.
Physical aging is a complicated and enigmatic process, as any of us who are living and experiencing it know. Precipitated by little-understood changes in the workings of our cells and physiological systems, it proceeds in stuttering fits and starts, affecting some people and body parts earlier or more noticeable than others.
“A lot of studies show that higher circulating inflammatory factors in people are associated with greater loss of muscle mass,” says Todd Trappe, a professor of exercise science at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., who oversaw the new study with his brother Scott Trappe and other researchers.
To find out, the Ball State scientists turned to a unique group of volunteers. Local men and women in their 70s or 80s who had been training continuously since the running boom of the 1970s, these volunteers already were part of several interrelated studies at Ball State.
Now, the researchers wanted to look deep inside the older athletes’ blood and muscles. So, they gathered 21 of the elderly athletic men (results from a separate study of women will be published soon, Dr. Trappe says), along with 10 runners and cyclists in their 20s, and another 10 healthy but sedentary elderly men. They measured all of the men’s thighs, as a marker of muscle mass, and took blood and muscle-tissue samples.