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Fitness age of older athletes 20 years younger, study says

by GRETCHEN REYNOLDS The New York Times | August 24, 2015 at 4:00 a.m.

Older athletes can be much younger, physically, than they are in actual years, according to a new study of participants in the Senior Olympics. The study found that the athletes' fitness age is typically 20 years or more younger than their chronological age.

Fitness age is a concept developed by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim who had taken note of epidemiological data showing that people with above-average cardiovascular fitness generally had longer lives than people with lower aerobic fitness. So at any given age, cardiovascularly conditioned people were relatively younger than were people who were out of shape.

But the researchers decided that their insight was not useful unless people could easily determine their fitness age. So using a mobile exercise laboratory, they went out and tested the fitness and health of more than 5,000 Norwegian adults and used the resulting data to write an algorithm that could rapidly calculate someone's aerobic capacity and relative fitness age based on sex, resting heart rate, waist size and exercise routine.

They then set up a simple online calculator at worldfitnesslevel.org that people could use to determine their fitness age.

Dr. Pamela Peeke took note. An assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and board member of the foundation that runs the National Senior Games -- which are informally known as the Senior Olympics -- she is also a competitive triathlete.

And biologically, it seems, she is a spring chicken. When she plugged her personal data into the online fitness calculator, it told her that her fitness age is 36.

Chronologically, she is 61.

Delighted, she wondered whether other older athletes were similarly youthful. And she had a plan for how to find out. Contacting the scientist who had led the development of the fitness age calculator, Ulrik Wisloff, she suggested that together they study a particular group of older people -- the participants in this year's Senior Olympics.

The Senior Olympics are a biennial competition for athletes older than 50 and include a variety of sports, like track and field, swimming and pickleball. To compete, athletes must first qualify regionally.

Nearly 10,000 men and women age 50 to 100 qualified for this year's Games held in July in and around Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Senior Olympians are not professional athletes, but most train frequently, Peeke knew. They tend to be more physically active than other people of the same chronological age.

To see just how their lifestyle affects their biological age, she and Wisloff asked all of this year's Senior Olympic qualifiers to complete the online calculator. They set up a website so their data could be isolated. (The fitness calculator itself was unchanged.)

More than 4,200 participants complied.

The results were impressive. While the athletes' average chronological age was 68, their average fitness age was 43 -- 25 years less.

"This is a massive difference," Wisloff says. "I had expected a big difference," he added, "since these people have trained for years. However, I was surprised that it was this big."

The effect was similar for male and female athletes, he noted. Virtually every athlete, in fact, had a lower fitness age than chronological age.

BETTER SPORTS?

Peeke and Wisloff have not yet determined whether certain Senior Olympians, particularly those in endurance events such as distance running and swimming, have a younger fitness age in general than those in less vigorous sports.

But they plan to parse the data in the coming months to answer that question and to look for other patterns among the Senior Olympians. They expect to publish their findings.

"A majority of the athletes at the Senior Games didn't begin serious training until quite late in life, including me," she said. "We may have been athletes in high school or college. But then, for most of us, jobs and families and other commitments got in the way, at least for a while."

Few Senior Olympians returned to or began exercising and training regularly until they were middle-age or older, she said. "So you can start anytime," she said. "It's never too late."

Qualifying competitions for the 2017 National Senior Games begin next year.

ActiveStyle on 08/24/2015

Print Headline: Fitness age of older athletes 20 years younger, study says

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