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From The Desk Of Clarence Bass

The Competitive Edge
The will to win makes for a longer, more robust life

A revolution is taking place in our understanding of the aging process. Most people take it for granted that aging means an inevitable physical decline. For years, medical scientists have said that after 25 we lose about 1% per year in aerobic capacity (VO2 Max), strength, speed and a whole host of physical attributes. That's just the way it is, gerontologists have maintained. Well, it's now becoming increasingly clear that it doesn't have to be that way. In fact, the 1%-per-year rule of thumb may have little, if any, application to individuals who continue to train at a competitive level.

I've mentioned before Dr Michael Pollock's study of 24 healthy, active men who continued to train after the normal competitive period. At the beginning of the study in 1971, all were 40 and considered champion Master athletes, mostly runners. Ten years later, when Pollock tested the men again, he found that those who had continued to train hard showed much less deterioration from aging. Surprisingly, at least to adherents of the old rule of thumb, the men who continued to train for high-level competition maintained their ability to consume oxygen; over the 10-year period of the study, their VO2 Max barely declined. Those who allowed training intensity to drop off, however, showed a marked decline over the same period, their VO2 Max declined by an average of 12.5%, compared to a decline of only 1.7% for the competitive group.

With every year that goes by, support continues to build for Pollock's finding that the key to holding off the aging process is hard training. For example, my friend Richard Winett, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia Tech and editor of Master Trainer newsletter (www.ageless-athletes.com), called my attention to a highly encouraging study of male competitive swimmers over a 15-year span.

"For scientists studying the aging process, Masters swimming provides a natural laboratory with tens of thousands of subjects," wrote Phil Whitten, Ph.D., in the July/August issue of Swim. Master's swimming involves athletes more than 20 years old and provides precise performance data on competitors in 5-year age brackets, from 25-75. This allowed Whitten to study the same individuals over an extended period. He compared the best times in four different age groups every five years. For example, group A was 25-29 in 1975, 30-34 in 1980, 35-39 in 1985, and 40-44 in 1990. Thus he was able to measure how performances changed over 15 years.

"Dramatic Finding"
Swimming delays decline

Here's a summary of the exciting results: For men who swim regularly, physical decline begins not at 25, but in the mid-30s. In fact these men are actually faster in their early 30s than in their late 20s. Decline begins almost imperceptibly for these swimmers. They do not decline at the 1%-per-year rate until they reach their early 70s.

"This is a dramatic finding," says Whitten. It means that the 1%-decline-per-year-after-age-25 rule applies only to those who lead a sedentary lifestyle; they lose 25% of their physical capacity by the age of 50 and by 75 they have lost 50%.

In contrast, if you swim regularly - and competitively - the decline is only 3.5% by the age of 50 and 19.1% by age 75. Another way to look at it is a 70-year-old competitive swimmer will have the strength and vitality of a "normal" 45-year-old.

What's more, Whitten believes that his results actually understate what is theoretically possible. "Almost all of the decline, I believe, is due to a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle." Most Masters swimmers have families and job responsibilities, Whitten observed. They are unable to train more than an hour or so a day. "Were they able to put in the time and mileage top collegiate swimmers do, they probably could swim even faster."

Like Pollock, Whitten believes the secret to maintaining performance with advancing age is to never let yourself get out of condition. He speculates that the much-publicized comeback attempt by swimmer Mark Spitz failed not because of age, but because Spitz took a 16-year break from training after his seven-gold-medal performance at the 1972 Olympics. Whitten calculates, based on his study of Masters swimmers, that a 42-year-old Spitz would have been capable of swimming .05 of a second faster than his world record 20 years earlier - "if he'd never stopped [swimming] at all after Munich."

As it turned out, that time would have placed Spitz third at the Olympic trials. That doesn't seem at all far-fetched, when you consider that 37-year-old Lorraine Moller of New Zealand place third in the women's marathon at Barcelona, only a little more than a minute behind the winner. And don't forget that Francie Larrieu-Smith, the top American finisher, was 39.

My own years of regular, hard training - weights and aerobics - have produced results consistent with Whitten's findings. My aerobic fitness has been tested at the Cooper Clinic, first in 1988 when I was almost 51 and again a year later. My first test produced a treadmill time of 28 minutes, placing me better than 1.5 minutes above the 99th percentile for the 50-59 age group. In 1989 my treadmill time improved to 29 minutes. So you can see, I can testify firsthand that decline with age is not inevitable. (For more details about my first test at the Cooper Clinic see "Fit At 50", and for my results at 55 and 60, see "Cooper Clinic 4th visit"; both are on this site.)


This article was taken from Lean Advantage 3. It's still as timely as the day it was written. I know from the e-mails I receive every day that people are hungry for information like this. They want answers to their questions about diet and exercise, fitness and aging, and fat loss. They need the information, inspiration and encouragement provided in articles like this - and in The Lean Advantage series (3 books).

To encourage people to discover the veritable treasure chest of valuable information in The Lean Advantage series, we are offering a special: all three for $30.00 + 8.00 shipping -(for foreign postage check ordering page.) If the books were purchased individually they would cost $45.85 plus shipping, a savings of almost $16. To order call (505) 266-5858 (8-5, M-F Mtn time), or fax your credit card order to (505) 266-9123 (24 hours). (For more information on The Lean Advantage 1,2&3, click on "Products" below.)

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