Have we been aging too quickly?
Did you know that 75-year-old athletes can have the same fitness level as teenagers who don’t exercise? Imagine your grandma being able to keep pace with you as you jog around the park! How is it that some people keep up with the sports and activities they enjoy, while others reach a point where they can't move the way they used to?
Maximum strength, cardio fitness, balance and muscle endurance studies show that physical ability steadily declines from young adulthood through retirement and advanced age, with the rate of decline increasing after middle age. According to studies with normative data by age group, muscle endurance and balance are lost most rapidly with aging, followed by power, cardio fitness and maximum strength(1-10). How much of this decline is unavoidable, and how much is due to lack of exercise?
Additional studies have uncovered internal aging changes that are apparently occurring in all people. Tendons lose their stiffness. Muscle fibers shrink, and muscle mass declines by 4-5% per decade. There are also changes in the nervous system. Brain cells that affect motor control become less responsive. Slow-twitch endurance neurons replace fast-twitch nerve cells. There is also less space for blood flow in the heart and blood vessels, smaller air sacs in the lungs, and less elasticity in the heart valves and lung tissue. (17-20)
Are these changes set in stone whether or not we exercise? How much difference does it make to stay active as we get older? If we compare athletic and fit people with out-of-shape peers, we can see the age-related decline in fitness is very similar in both groups.
If we look more closely at the data, we see that active and athletic people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s have similar conditioning as young adults. It's possible to maintain this youth-like advantage through the retirement years. This is based on a 23-year Cleveland Clinic study that followed over 120,000 people! (3) Here are some fun comparisons from the data for men. A fit teen has the same conditioning as an athlete in his 50s. A fit 55-year-old is better than an average 35-year-old. An out-of-shape 55-year-old is not quite as fit as an average 65-year-old or a fit 75-year-old.
When we look at women, we find that a fit 55-year-old is like an out-of-shape teen, an average young adult, or an athlete in her 70s. An out-of-shape young adult is comparable to an average 55-year-old. An out-of-shape 55-year-old is equal to an average 65-year-old or a fit 75-year-old. So the most profound observation from the decline that comes with aging is that people who stay active have a considerable advantage over their out-of-shape peers.
At the age of 63, Eric Schreiber wasn’t feeling healthy. He’d been active in the past, but he gained weight since then. Eric knew it was time for a change after feeling exhausted from a mile and a half walk. Within seven years, he won his age group in the Akron Marathon. Now he’s fast enough to race against his great nephew!
Today, at 73 years old, Eric plans to keep running as long as he can. As he says, “I don’t want to get old!” Eric made a big turnaround after years of effort, but what do the changes with aging look like for the average person?
Suppose you have a running, hiking, or biking route that takes you 30 minutes to finish at age 25. If you keep up with a similar weekly exercise routine over the next 20 years, it will take you only three more minutes to finish. By age 65, if you are gradually slowing down your activity as the average person would, and provided you have no remarkable life changes, it will take you 44 minutes to complete your route. Then at 75, after a 40% overall decline in your cardio fitness, it will take you about 54 minutes to finish (3).
When it comes to strength and aging, suppose you use 100# for a weightlifting exercise at age 25. If you gradually adjust your lifestyle over time, as the average person would do, you would expect to lift 90# at age 45, 70# at 65, and 45# at 85, giving you a 55% decline over 60 years (1, 2, 4, 6, 9).
Averages aren’t for everyone. Some exceptional athletes seem to defy the limits of the aging decline. John Moore was able to bench press 270 pounds as an 81-year-old! After 41 years away from the sport, John started weight lifting again at the age of 66. For the next 12 years, at a time in life when he should have been losing strength, he lifted more weight every year. John won the powerlifting world championship for the bench press in the 70+ age group in 2019.
Jeannie Rice is the world record holder in the marathon for her age group. At 73 years old, she can run faster than 8 minutes per mile for an entire marathon, which is much better than an average marathoner of any age! Jeannie was running marathons in 3:40 ten years ago, and her recent times have improved to 3:24.
Just like John and Eric, Jeannie improved her physical ability much later in life than we would expect. John and Eric show that previously active people can make a big comeback, even in their 60s and 70s, while Jeannie shows it’s possible to continue improving, even for people who already have outstanding fitness.
While these athletes are performing remarkably well, many peers reaching this age are on the cusp of disability. Data from WHO anticipates that the average 60-year-old will lose physical independence by the late 70s, even in the top-20 countries for life expectancy(11). This leaves about six years with some level of dependence on others before the end of life. In the US, it’s nearly eight years.
For those who live to the 90s, walking rates tend to slow down significantly, and there is much more walker and wheelchair use compared to people in the 70s and 80s. Studies of physical ability show a high rate of decline from ages 65-85. The age-95 ability level is 43% of a 65-year-old. The rating is an estimate based on the decline rate of the previous decades (1-10). Balance tends to decline aggressively in old age, followed by muscle endurance, maximum strength, and cardio fitness.
It’s possible to make improvements in your senior years, especially for people who were active earlier in life. But with the general trend of decline after 65, we are best off building our fitness up before retirement as well. The quality of life advantage for active seniors is unmistakable compared to their peers, as there are seniors over 100 competing in athletics and 110-year-olds still walking on their own. With the widening gap in life outcomes as we grow older, how can we give ourselves the best chance at successful aging?
Thanks to advances in health science, fitness tests have become a good health indicator and a guide for your future exercise training. Our age group fitness chart is reorganized by fitness score and health risk. Where would you land on this chart?
You can self-test your cardio fitness, or VO2 max, with a 1-mile walk or a 1.5-mile run for time. Using data from current research, the minimum fitness standard for a 45-year-old woman would be the equivalent of running 1.5 miles in 17 minutes or better. For a man the same age, it would be 13:52 or better. A good VO2 max is associated with lower health risks and better long-term survival (3).
With aging, muscle endurance declines faster than cardio fitness. Fortunately, there is meaningful data you can use to track your status. A 2019 Harvard study found that working-age men who could do at least 11 push-ups were much less likely to develop heart disease than those who could do ten or fewer. Risks decreased further at 21 push-ups and above, and men who could do 41 push-ups or more were at the lowest level of risk (12). These numbers compare closely with established fitness standards for pushups. Are you in the low-risk group, or do you need to build up your muscle endurance?
Excess weight and body fat can also affect your physical ability as you age. Scientists across the globe found that a waist measurement of less than half your height is a reliable minimum standard to help lower your health risks, regardless of body shape. A smaller waist is associated with longer life expectancy, improved fitness, and lower risks of disease and death (13,14).
When used alongside these other tests, body mass index, a measure of your weight relative to your height, can be an insightful tool. A 2013 review of studies showed slower walking speeds and more trouble with balance in overweight and obese seniors, with similar results for seniors with increased waist measurements (16).
This weight chart for men under age 60 compares body mass index weight classes by their associated risk of premature death. Find your height in the left column and scan to the right for your weight. Healthy weight guidelines come from body mass index research that compares death, disease, and disability risk by weight class(15, 21, 22).
I hope this article has given you new and deeper perspectives on aging and exercise, and the ways physical activity improves our life journey. Please share in the comment section about the people you know who inspire you to be strong and fit later in life. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with others! Join our email list and subscribe to our YouTube channel so you won’t miss any upcoming content about health, exercise, and fitness.
VO2 max impacts our performance, our health, and even our survival! Learn how to test yourself accurately with the Rockport 1-Mile Walk, Cooper 12-Minute Run, or Cooper 1.5-Mile Run. Find out whether you’re fit enough for optimal health and top performance.
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